Canals and Convicts

Writing this has given me great pause, which in turn was compounded as the CDT has been generally tougher than I expected, or maybe I just got soft in UT.

I spent a few unexpected zeroes in New Rockford, ND. Only slightly jeopardizing my plans to meet my father at the end of the NCT to slackpack the gap to Glacier. It started after having hitched into town for water, I camped in the RV section of the town park, with plans to hitch back out to where I left off, and maybe camp there once more. It’d be a short day, but I did have a package to pick up in town. After dark someone stumbled over my tent on the way back to their camper, after a brief realization of what they’d  tripped over; in particular that I had no car. They told me that they “Really appreciated what [I] was up to, and that we should hang out in the morning.” I could feel the edge of the vortex pulling me in, but just wanted to get to sleep. So half-awake and halfheartedly I agreed. When morning came, I was surprised to find that my new friend; Chad, had barbed wire tattoos instead of eyebrows, my interest had been piqued. After some introductions I ended up staying with an old lady from town, Julie, whom they hang out with and generally seemed to be helping. We moved a bunch of her furniture, went searching for replacements on curbsides. Picked up a compact dishwasher for Chad’s RV, and a new-to-her refrigerator for Julie, swapped the old one to the curb where the new one was found.

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This account is of course abbreviated, many other things happened and people met, including Tarot readings, ritual use of energy crystals, Julie’s daughter and grand-children. I’ve had a tough time turning it into something coherent as is. My longest home-stay since Aunt Kim’s in Michigan, ended rather quietly, during my last morning I hitched out and slack-packed myself back to town from where I had previously hitched to town from, collected my pack and water and headed for the final stretch of the NCT: The McClusky Canal, an unfinished and abandoned canal, which makes up the better part of the remaining 170 or so miles to the NCT’s western terminus. Walking the canal is rough, it is long, it is flat, and the first couple dozen miles were basically dry too. The section of canal line near New Rockford doesn’t actually connect all the way to Lake Sakakawea; there’s about a 15 mile gap where you’re back on roads, or cutting across farmland. After this gap the canal is mostly full of slow or stagnant water, but it is available.

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The Canal drops into Lake Audubon, which is only really separate from Lake Sakakawea due to US 83 cutting across via land bridge. I am late in making it here, but its nothing a 24 hour challenge can’t solve, and its easy terrain for night hiking; the canal is lined with a pair of dirt roads. Once you hit the lake its back onto regular roads, tracking alongside the lake with a couple miles of trail leading into Lake Sakakawea State Park for the end of the North Country Trail. The Terminus Sign was absent, having been blown down during a semi recent storm, not with a whimper, or a bang, but a more of a sigh as I meet my Father, and ready myself for the long road walk to Glacier and my next long trail.

On a Plain

Lots of trail magic in Eastern MN, between trail volunteers and random passersby. I had a stretch of nightly hosting, and made a couple new friends. Including Henry, whom gave me a lift back into town during some mild rain wherein we played frisbee golf, ate mango, and talked about mysticism. From town (Fergus Falls) I met up with a friend from home, who was in school nearby at Morris and spent a weekend with him. Which included sorta low-key crashing his friends’ wedding, (that makes two for those of you counting at home) and gorging myself on cupcakes that nobody else seemed to be eating. Met a guy named Dale right on near the border with North Dakota, and after passing me several times just wandering down the road who after getting shot down offering me rides, ended up taking me in for a night. He had a rad Lego collection set up in his living room and a little wooded area with a fireplace that was all done up with Xmas lights and such. In the morning we stopped into his shop where we were greeted by a whole bunch of friendly farm kittens, not quite to the extent as I had seen in OH, but pleasant as all get out nonetheless.

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North Dakota surprised me with how well punctuated it is, however the roadwalks do drag on endlessly and some of the trail seems to be almost through people’s backyards, which can be a little awkward. The lack of shade led me to hike long into the nights, and spend my days in dry shady culverts. The non-corrugated ones are especially nice, although in a pinch you can sit just outside on the leeward side from the sun. The empty night roads  make for a pleasant trek, featuring wide open to the expanses with low horizon lines all around, and populated only by occasional trees, shrub, or ditch. While Its doubtful I would’ve been hassled while sleeping beside the road, I was thankful for my tent’s dark green shade, which likely drew less attention as I tore down camp in the mornings. The days I did hike during daylight hours were brutally hot, retaining much of that Minnesotan Humidity from just across the border. I certainly am a child of winter.

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Roasting in the sun, if you zoom in you can read the 106 F on my watch, and see the blank horizons beyond. The Shirt is wet with sweat, otherwise the white salt stains would be showing up, emanating from the sternum strap in particular. Luckily (not really, I am sure it was by design.) water was generally available, as the trail tracks the Sheyenne River pretty closely. There is a big gap between the Sheyenne and New Rockford where the Trail picks up the McClusky Canal, hitching back and forth to town for water is pretty weird, and people seem almost a little offended when you ask to get dropped off in the middle of nowhere, but then again, I don’t always jump to explain what I am up to either.

Boundries

The Border Route Trail section, immediately after the Superior Hiking Trail, brought me my dusting of late MN snow. While I had just come off trail to resupply; Nemo was dropping one of our friends off to SoBo the SHT, so we kicked it for a night and he brought me a ration box. Found several unopened beers in the woods, still good even; not in the same place either, like 3 different beers in 3 different places. Hope I didn’t wreck someone’s caches for a drunken FKT attempt… Saw lots of wild life up close, all the baby animals that aren’t afraid of people, or are otherwise foolish. From the moose at a safe distance, to grouse chicks and fawns that try to hide right in the center of the trail. (or worse, under the arch of my boot.) Met Problem Bear briefly on the Kekekabic trail, He’s Triple Crowner who attempted the NCT east bound in 2016. I think he got off in MI around when the trail gets overly civilized. People who can really relate to long distance hiking are pretty rare the farther you get from the Triple Crown Trails, so I think we both enjoyed taking an hour to commiserate.

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I caught both the BRT and Kek before many of the volunteers had been out for the heavy trail maintenance necessary. Many dead-falls and Aspen were bent across the trails; likely a hold over from heavy snows or a fall windstorm; slowing progress about as well as any of the steep elevation jumps of the AT and the LT, as following the trail became less walking and more tracing a tread path through a thicket that grows sideways. Leaving the Kek and the boundary waters I was able to connect with a group of volunteers who put me up in a boy scout camp near the Kek’s terminus, and also fed me pretty decent before I set off on the next decent road section. MN was good to me, even on roads; people offered me rides, food and drink multiple times a day between Ely and my next trail section just after Grand Rapids. (These great lakes states seem to share town names pretty frequently…) Good to have “Minnesota Nice” be more true than just a series of passive aggressive jokes.

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This road section is about when I really got on top of this iteration of the blog, and I think when I got onto instagram. The next section of established trail is well supported by trail volunteers and came and went quite breezily. Here I found my first morel mushrooms, which at the time I thought were quite sizable, as well this section was where I had to step over a fawn that failed its hide check. (or maybe just balance…) I ran into an encryption error, and accidentally erased all the pictures I took in Minnesota to this point, so the ones that have made it here I have found because as luck would have it; I didn’t back up anything in that time, but I did transfer files around a little so there were a few survivors. You’d think that afterwards I would’ve learned my lesson and developed good habits around back-ups and data management, but I actually recently had another near catastrophe… maybe I ought to get around to that…

Winter flees the North Shore

While still quite early for the Superior Hiking Trail’s season, my delays found me on trail with atleast one other thru hiker according to the registers. A little slack packing out ofy parent’s cottage in duluth, compliments of my father, (who seems to like slack packing quite a bit, seeing as he offers to do so not infrequently.) and I was back up to speed. The eastern most 400 miles of the NCT in MN are truly a joy; minimal roadwalking enough elevation change to stave off boredom, without being particularly difficult, plentiful and beautiful waterways. I may be a bit biased, as the SHT was my first thru-hike, and is in my home state, but this is the best section of the NCT; barring maybe the High Peaks area of the Adirondaks, which was nowhere near as long, but more spectacular, and not the official NCT route.

After the long and lonesome winter, having the occasional company at camp was nice, on trail as well although I seldom stop to chat for long. I passed several different trail crews all out for their first outings of the season, and even met Lars again and nighted with his family near Oberg Mt. (Which was fortunate, as I forgot my trekking poles with him when he ferried my back to the Twin Cities.) Shortly thereafter I happened to camp with another thru hiker which I hadn’t quite expected. I figured I would probably pass them at night while they were camped out. It was their first thru, and they were having some minor struggles regarding a hiking partner getting back on trail after having gotten hurt. I think I shared some cookies with them, hope they managed to finish

The atmosphere this time through the SHT was wholly different from my previous thru, in which it was much drearier, was also off season. I don’t recall this bridge being as sketchy then (heard they’ve already fixed it even) but I have a kind of fixation on failing trail infrastructure. When I previously passed thru, overcast skies lent a certain mystique to the riverwalks. Low visibility lent the rock formations additional gravitas, as they disappear into fog only 10 feet away. This time I had few clouds, although for a couple days they showed up bearing a dusting of snow in the far north. I’ll count that, and with it I had snow in every state of the NCT save ND.

Dairy Land Blitz

Jetting thru WI’s 200 miles in 6 days neither left room for error, nor was a section prone to it, with a gentle elevation profile and overall easy to follow tread. Its greatest challenges came in the mundane challenge of mustering quickly in the morning and bedding down quickly at night. Such sections aren’t the most interesting to recall as a narrative, but are often wonderful in the moments; a simple pleasure, wherein talents learned in previous hardship aren’t tested, but exercised. Hiking the North woods in the spring, preseason to the more crowded summer offers cushier conditions than I think most expect. Cool, but not bitter cold temps, combined with longer daylight hours, keep you up and moving in the day and resting easily at night. The bugs that swarm from the upper Midwest’s many waterways aren’t out yet in any significant force. The woods are most often empty of people, as schools are still in session and vacation season is a ways off; and aside from turkey, hunting seasons are closed. Autumn is still my favorite time to be outside, but trading the foliage for more daylight, and less consideration for being downrange of hunters doesn’t seem unfair at all.

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None of that is to say that my way through WI was wholly unremarkable, I trudged long into the night to find shelters that were perhaps overly ambitious targets. Once of which was a small hardly optimally shaped building with a door, and made up my first night in the state. The next, and last was more a standard Adirondack style shelter, but with columns closely spaced instead of wall near the open end, as an architectural flourish to an otherwise simple building. Or finding myself sleeping beside a stream underneath a low clearance bridge, having left the day unplanned and ending with miles of road before the next bit of trail, without knowing if camping is even permitted near that trail head. Or getting mixed results hoping for shortcuts by following jeep trails.

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Spring thaw was in full effect as I tromped thru WI, as the contrast between these pictures show. I’m sure I would’ve encountered more places where the trail becomes a pond, had off trail section of WI been weighted more towards the end, but as it was I found myself practically snowshoeing into the state and wading out into Jay Cooke. Where I got spirited away by my friend Lars, first back to his cabin, and then back home to the Cities to have myself a bit of a spring break. I seem to diverge from hiking quarterly, and then inevitably get delayed in getting back to trail, as I  often put myself at the mercy of whatever cheap or free transport I can find. (Friends and Family have been super helpful on this front, although I suspect some foul play has perhaps been involved in some of my delays.)

Breaking Through

I mostly travel went without incident. Something that should perhaps be surprising, given how many icy tree bridges I balance beam across. (This didn’t fail me until near Donner Pass, CA actually. So I call that a win.) However my worst accident of the North Country Trail came while travelling on what I assume is regularly an (unmaintained?) jeep trail, or perhaps snowmobile route, I broke through ice, into a stream that had covertly washed out part of the road. Luckily landing only about thigh to waist deep in water, but getting pretty wet up to my stomach or chest. The kicker being that it happened while snowshoeing. Which proves exceptionally unwieldy in deep and rushing water. This delayed my escape to dry snow, so I couldn’t  waste any time, and decided to press on for the day. Fueling myself with the necessity of a far away ration, and the possibility of inadequate food stores. A hint of warmth returned to my legs before nightfall, but a sense of existential cold lingered for a few days, settling in my extremeties. I camped near a stream, off a back road, where I was happily able to maintain immediate self sufficiency. Streams seem to have a moderating effect on the surrounding tempuratures; or atleast I have convicinced myself as such, which within limits may even be more important. I get by on positing minor factors that may be aiding me in the face of obvious detrimental factors more often than I’d care to admit.

edge of the porkies

I had been receiving the occasional warning about a long unmaintained section of trail in the second half of the UP; which I  seemed to navigate deftly as I am not wholly sure where exactly it was… although there were many sections that were slowed by white-out, such that blazed painted on trees aren’t visible at a useful distance. Durring where I thought it had been I was able to find blazes semi regularly or otherwise follow what seemed like an established path. Although quite a few little stream crossings required a bit of walking up or down stream seeking a suitable fallen tree to improvise myself a bridge with. The Porkies, whom I had been hyped up for, did not quite live up to the hype; though it may have been due to them missing such excitement as taking an unexpected swim, or just being foggy my whole visit. I was pleasantly surpised to find they had backcountry huts, then dissapointed to find them lock, then rode the rollercoaster of trail emotion back up when their privies were unlocked! Leaving the Porkies, signs signs of civilization became increasingly recent, until I was in small state parks, and with a long final thaw began the long roadwalk out of MI after 1150 or so miles. Making it the longest state at the time; only to be beaten later by CA, which would end up exceeding 1800 miles.

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Spring comes and goes on the South Shore

Freezes and thaws continued to define my way thru MI’s Upper Peninsula. Spring was trying its hardest, its success was somewhat limited to a near permanent overcast cloud cover, and the occasional flooded trail section. The swings between quality of trail maintenance in the UP is immense; from blazes marked on seemingly alternating trees, to unmarked sections where  I could never be quite sure I had just begun cross country travel. I certainly spent more milage of the UP moving cross country, sans trail, than any other bit the trip I have thus far. Both routing around flooded sections, finding stable ice or tree bridges for flooding creek crossings, or just having lost trail.

Hitting the beaches of Superior was one of my NCT high points. The massive lake really moderated the temperature nearby, and gave me my first clean view to the horizon since the endless farmlands of OH. The whole of the NCT as it keeps to Lake Superior’s perimeter is worth the hike in lieu of committing to a full thru-hike attempt. (Mile for mile it’d maybe be most rewarding to do Ely, MN to Lowell, MI)

In Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, I met my first backpacker on trail for the year. It was still a pretty isolated event, the next wouldn’t be for a month, till I had made it onto the Superior Hiking Trail in MN. Heading westward thru the UP also heralded a return of shelters, with some pretty interesting ones tucked about the woods. (Pictures of these may come later, as I seem to have about a month long gap in pictures onboard. Hopefully I backed them up at some point.) from the locked shelters in the Porcupine Mountains, to sitting alongside abandoned (historical) Old Victoria. Some must’ve been built recently, or atleast repaired, as they were permeated with the smell of fresh cut wood. A nice thing in the moment, but frequently serving to return my own smell to my consciousness upon my exit.

A Winter of Fits and Starts

Note: This was supposed to go up last week, but I accidentally didn’t set it to publish before leaving town to hike to Badwater Basin. 

Michigan seems to be the heart of the NCT, the NCTA is headquartered there, and I had near constant contact with trail volunteers for much of the state. It should be noted however that I wasn’t in touch at all throughout OH, PA, or NY, so its hardly a complete sample. The first bit of real harsh winter was mostly mitigated by them, although slack packing daylight hours in winter does cut the mileage just by virtue of not holding myself to 13+ hours a day of trudging. One of my longer stays was with my Aunt Kim, who breeds puppies on the side. She mostly deals with smaller breeds, but she has an enormous dog named Bao, that I spent a couple zeros debating… physically. I somehow don’t have many pictures from this period of my trip, probably due to cold, photographic apathy, negligence, or having written off this blog as untenable. So while this is still the Internet, I have to withhold animal photos. (Sorry)

The thaw is often worse than the freeze, and such was the case, many times on the NCT. Leading up to crossing Mighty Mac we had a pretty good thaw, enough that I thought winter might be over and I would have to zip thru to ND quickly if I wanted to avoid the mosquitos of the north woods. Mostly it lead to me charging across breaking ice in wilderness state park over a flooded section of trail. Not the main route, I took a slightly more southern route thru the park to try and check out their shelter. Didn’t find it, got wet up to my thighs anyways. I’ll call that a win for adventure, and a loss for me. It could’ve been a lot worse though, in almost typical MI fashion I was spontaneously rescued by a trail volunteer’s walking partner. (Thanks Nancy, that one would’ve been terrible for a week.) 

Also around this time, I had my second birthday on trail. It was much nicer than the first, In which I spent a cold day, hiking up a steep hill to a clouded out fire tower, while being pretty sick, but that is no longer either here nor there. This one was spent with Yorkshire Pudding and people who have a suspiciously similar last name to mine. (Thanks Bob and Patti!)

A Return, Greeted by Winter Haze

Returning to trail after an extended holiday stay at home, I found that I had skipped what would’ve been the easiest portion of winter, as temps were still barely holding below freezing. western OH is mostly follows an old canal line, occaisionally with bike path routed on it. this makes for excellent stealth camping as few bike through even the light snow. I passed through Dayton, an inadequately stealth camped, and thus was woken up and evicted. It happened without much trouble or fanfare, but I’ve become a little more cautious as a result, next time may not be so easy. Little in the way of running ground water was left, and I found myself melting snow for water each night and again each morning. This practice, while simple enough is incredibly fuel intensive, leading me to run dry near Defiance. I was able to reach out to the NCTA and the Buckeye trail Association for some assistance and was greatly helped by Anita, Clark, Greg, and Joe in finding an extra fuel cannister. Getting in touch successfully this time lead me to a series of trail angels, whom would pass word of me forward, leading to many, many, more homestays than I anticipated. I probably could have avoided camping entirely if I had wished, finding ways to slack pack instead. I think I ended up spending about four in ten nights inside, throughout northwest OH and most of MI.

Overall this Section had only a few notable mishaps, including accidentally opening up my waterbag inside my sleepingbag on one of the colder nights. This lead to much discomfort, and quite a few crunches as I tried to use body heat to dry my various down garments. Overall the next day was sunny which helped me warm up, although the nightly ramifications lasted for several days. This would be my second worst accident of the season. 

Aside from being aided by Trail volunteers (of whom there are too many to thank individually, without specifically making this post about it) it was not uncommon for me to be offered a homestay when I would stop into a cafe or bar seeking some water I didn’t have to melt. One such encounter that was particularly interesting; I was passed by a man and child in a car, walking on a minor country road, north of Lowell MI. They stopped, and backed up; asking what I was up to. After a short explaination he offered to let me stay in a home he was nearly finished remodeling with the intention to flip it soon. I took him up, and once I had found my way to the home he asked if I liked pizza. (what kindof question is that?!) Leaving me there, I did my evening chores and slept in the empty living room, only to be awoken by the man who now bore Pizza and beer! Turns out, in addition to flipping houses he owns a pizzeria in Lowell. I spent a couple days in town as I passed thru Lowell, I was able to cover a bunch of gear maintenance, cleaning some mold off my sleeping pad, drying out my sleeping bag, and getting my pack swapped out on warranty from the nearest outfitter. Semi-relevant as I recently replaced that pack some 5000 miles later, and some minor patching of my tent.

Dog Towns and Cat Hotels

One of the common threads amongst people who took me in while I passed thru Southern OH, was a surprising number of animals per home, and because this is the internet, pictures of them must be shared.

These Puppies belonged to a couple of American Discovery Trail Hikers, the ADT and NCT run concurrently in South OH for a while. They had set out westbound with a pair of dogs, whom helped them pull carts of gear and water. (The ADT is almost entirely roadwalk, making carts and strollers a surprisingly common strategy.) When they were moving an old man offered them to rent a trailer for cheap, (free? Or in trade for labor?) and thusly their progress halted for about eight months before they saw me walk past. I am a little doubtful they continued after I left either, they seemed to be putting down roots. Including building improvements to their trailer, and collecting more animals. Not pictured are two cats, four more dogs, and some gerbils (hamsters?) I spent a night and the better part of a day with them, as they caught me early.

I made a big mistake in missing the window for a maildrop the saturday before Veteran’s Day, which would’ve put me waiting for two days in a town without easy stealth camping access. Unacceptable. Even moreso in that I was to receive a new fuel cannister that ration, so I found my way to a hardware store and began to work on making a Soda Can stove. Nearly done I was spotted by a man who recognized what I was upto and offered to help me out. I ended up with a couple cans of Sterno, a wire mesh potrest, groceries, and a homestay in an old camper he had aquired with the intention of fixing up. His home had been built entirely out of recycled, found, and scrap material, giving it an awesome almost cartoon-like aesthetic. He had nine cats roaming about, including a couple little guys who’d come snuggle in the camper, and a little dog whose face was the spitting image of an Ewok. His Ewok-lookin pup was well trained and accompanied him while he would work as a trucker. The Cats were kept outside the house and were very interested in my pack, to the point where they would stay atop as I harnessed up.

Lastly, and the most vortexed I’ve gotten, in Cincinnati I re-connected with Little Bird, making it to her parents home just in time to be invited not to spend Thanksgiving alone in the woods. Little Bird’s Mother operates an Animal Rescue in their basement, and had nearly forty cats and maybe ten dogs. Although a few of the dogs weren’t rescues. While helping move what could’ve been a couple tons of cat litter to their basement, and being in a good place to slackpack and figure out my plans for returning home for Xmas and some pressing business. (mainly getting health insurance, as I was about to fall off my parent’s plan.) I offered to earn my keep by helping to put in a DIY elevator capable of moving a few hundred pounds of animal supplies, and cut the distance they would have to move things by 80+%. (The route through their house and down the stairs was not straightforward at all.) Also got to play with tons of Kittens.