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.

Open Roads, Open Doors

As the trail began to stretch out unto road I began to experience a great deal of chairity. Many times I would stop into a little café or diner, strike up a quick conversation, and find that some unknown benefactor had bought my meal. I’d heard that these kinds of interactions are somewhat common on the AT during its regular season, but seldom experienced it. I must’ve been quite novel to them, as the NCT is so much less travelled. On occasion I was offered motel rooms, attics, or the bed of a camper van parked on a nearby lawn. It was very striking for me, exiting the woods and receiving such a reception in civilization. At first it made me uncomfortable, and I turned a couple such offers down, feeling that I was undeserving of such chairity when I had chosen and prepared for this lifestyle. In part I still feel that way, but I also no longer reject kindness when offered. One such time I was approached, sitting on the grass median of a big box store, polishing off my second pint of Ice Cream, (gotta jump when they’re BOGO) and was given two $20 notes. I returned them, and the man who had offered seemed taken aback, saying something to the effect of “I dunno what you’re doin’ but buy yourself another meal or two.” His kindness towards me was less predicated on a perception of my destitution, and more upon his ability to see himself in me. When younger he could’ve been me, I see this interaction repeated, and no longer reject such connections. The NCT has its share of dedicated Trail Angels, and while I was not yet dialed into their networks, I crossed paths with them aswell. Staying at Lake Piedmont Inn, and eating with the caretakers and their dogs. (the first of many domestic animal encounters South and East OH, would provide.) Or Shew’s Orchard, drinking cider and camping behind the barn, while very thankful for my tent as the wind howled, funneling between the rolling hills, tossing sheets of corrugated roofing about, yet not quite collapsing my tent with each burst.

Once joined to the Buckeye Trail (BET) the days began to blend together, and I spent many nights bivvied in a roadside thicket. That isn’t to say they were without wonder, and with Autumn’s slow arrival there was yet greenery on the branches. The veil between the natural world and civilization wore ever thinner. Punctuated by nights spent in cool tunnels running beneath the interstate, or following a river to a dammed reservoir, where the waters are still couched in forest. It had its moments however, there is some rugged country in the southeast of OH, and the Hocking Hills area in southern OH is particularly beautiful, with many embankments built into the stone, bridges that span the chasm at various heights, each adding to a confluence of nature and architecture, setting it apart as a major highlight of the eastern half of the NCT. It is capped westbound by Ash Cave, a massive undercut cavern with a tiny dripping waterfall at the center. The day I spend there was overcast, almost foggy, and added a distinct ethereal feeling, but detracted equally from the lighting conditions…

Turkey, Train Tunnels, and Ghost Towns

Whilst in NY I had made ready for that year’s total lunar eclipse, looking far forward and anticipating camping on the northwestern side of a lake. Over whose clearing I would have a wide viewing angle for the eclipse set to begin shortly after moonrise. This plan however could not go smoothly, as the lake it centered around, did not seem to exist. After exhausing efforts to find it, I gave up, setting camp in a rough parking lot which would provide a smaller yet adequate clearing. Having planned to camp near a lake I hadn’t carried in enough water for dinner and the next morning, luckily this lot had a large puddle, which even though fully opaque, would suffice for my immediate needs. The third and final misfortune of the night, wherein I was practicing sword drills and cracked the wood of the grip, the leather binding had deteriorated and finally came fully off, leaving it vulnerable to exactly this kind of failure. It did not crack into pieces, but I would need to be more careful with it going forwards. Even accounting for these I had a nice night, watching Princess Mononoke on my new (at the time) tablet before staying up for the complete cycle of the Blood Moon.

Coming into PA, the early snowfall was fortunate, as the bugs wouldn’t recover for the season and thus abought me 7 months to hike without being pestered by insects, an ongoing trend of good luck with the climate. I was worried that the frost would wilt all the plantlife and leave me to hike through miles of barren brown dead forest. While the colors had already peaked, much of the greenery bounced back as the thaw came quick and frost did not return until long into OH. With the change of the season I found myself sporting a blaze orange scarf on my pack, as the occasional company I would find turned from hikers to hunters. As designated camping areas became more sparse; waking up while stealth camping, to the blast of nearby gunfire of indeterminate origin became quite common. Most encounters with hunters started coldly, but I would get a warmer reception as I explained my story and their recognition of me changed from that of a vagrant, squatting in their haunts, to a fellow, and I would trade talk for advice on places to pitch my tent. To their disappointment it seemed that their hunting grounds were filled with far more hunters than game, I don’t think I saw a single one carry out a bird. After the opening weekend these meetings too seemed to taper off precipitously and I was once again, alone.

I had two rations sent to PA, although I comically misjudged the distance between them, as I shifted to the 4th (of 9…) kind of map I would use for the NCT, and once again readjusting. Carrying six days of food I found myself taking ten days between maildrops, and easily using grocery stores to bridge the gaps as I spent more time on roads. Stopping nightly in the woods, beside ghost towns, abandoned train tunnels, and the occasional derrick standing still over the original US oil patch. The fewer hunters I saw, the more I noticed the turkeys, and it came to where I would flush a half dozen groups of them each day, one such group must’ve had more than eighteen birds in its number.

Alley cats and Finger Lakes

Having come out from ADK the reality of the North Country Trail truly began to set in, finding myself totally solitary save for the occasional interaction with post officers, grocers, librarian, or restaurant attendant. Newly armed with a tablet I had acquired while in home I began making great use of it as an e-reader almost immediately, reading Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, by the time I had made it out of NY. (As a side note: this was when I began working to make this blog more than just a twinkle in my eye.) I had long since abandoned the pretense of having medium-term plans, and picking up a tablet was a great way to keep my short term logistics somewhat in order.

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The downside of course is that now I was reasonably exposed to the internet once again, and found myself loitering about libraries, or listening to podcasts and music while hiking. This seemed to make time pass quicker through the endless pastoral Americana of the NCT and Finger Lakes Trail, at least at first. Quickly music and podcasts became a crutch and actually make days seem to drag on longer than when I had been losing myself in the landscapes. Though some of this could be attributed to the paradigm shift and the new proximity to roads, some serenity is surely lost as a semi speeds past only slightly to your side. Overall they’ve made a welcome addition to the kit.

The conclusion to my air mattress troubles came in the mail, as the replacement by warranty arrived, and as a side sleeper I can say the simple folding foam pad I had picked up to use as a stop gap was not ideal. While this is a weakness in that I seem to require a more specialized piece of gear, maybe in a warmer climate I’ll try to get in the habit of sleeping pad-less. With the mattress the rest of my mail carried poor tidings as another bout of ration troubles had begun, this being the one that would ultimately cause the switch from Nemo covering my rations. Once again with these troubles I feel the need to point out how much of a help it was to have someone running ration support, and that these troubles rather serve to highlight how much easier it made things, as I make poor food buying decisions when I am hungry, and I am always hungry.

The FLT itself has many shelters, they were a welcome and familiar place to stay, a reminder of sorts that the land itself was not uninviting, though if the signs on the trees were their thought bubbles it would’ve seemed much more hostile. I became quite accustomed to stealth camping along the road sections, to the point where I ceased planning my days so tightly around the shelters, and frequently made my resupplies into town from a nearby stealth camp, as keeping to the shoestring budget would keep me hiking longer, and if I must spend money I prefer ice cream to lodging. Upstate NY is filled with rolling hills, and given decent weather provided a fine vantage point from which to watch the season shift across the forest, replacing emerald with a cornucopia of warm reds, and yellows to contrast with the cooling temps. NY ended with a surprise early snow, and while it had begun to melt by the time I made PA it signaled what would be a trend, snow would follow me throughout the trail, and I would find snow in every state of the NCT save for ND.

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Bridging the Gaps

My first week on the NCT was bookended by bridges, the first crossing from VT to Crown Point NY. I spent a little time talking to the people manning the historical site hoping to find some info regarding the terminus, and maybe a trail register. I had missed office hours for the NCTA, so without inquiring of them I departed for the Adirondacks without much fanfare. Into the Dix mountain wilderness via an ill-advised bushwhack up the east side of Macomb Mountain, through pine thicket for about 5 miles, ended up taking some 13 hours of hard trekking. (Put some of the most significant damge on shirt No.2 that it would see, aswell) Moving quickly into and thru the high peaks wilderness, with nought but a short side jaunt up Mt. Marcy to check cell reception (no dice, but got service at a random shelter a few hours later…) and for a state high point. Caught the beautiful Northville to Lake Placid Trail (NPT) outta the high peaks, with a little extra time for some swimming in the river. Shortly after hitting the road I got the payoff of a minor logistical miracle, in which four of my friends, including Nemo, had managed to road trip out to meet me. The purpose of the trip, Mighty Mac, the bridge between the two Michigans is only open for pedestrians one day of the year, Labor Day, and was at the time part of the “official” NCT thru route. (I have since heard that a couple weeks later they pulled it, C’est la vie.) Between the ADK and Mac we spent some time at Niagra falls in the middle of the night, and burned an afternoon with a little swordplay at the beach. 

Crossing the Mackinac Bridge was in itself a bit sof a shocking experience, having mostly been alone or within a small group of mostly known individuals, to suddenly find myself amongst a huge crowd at a well choreographed event was jarring to say the least. Of course security wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about my carrying a sword, or large bags so I crossed with neither my pack nor my sword. (The only notable distance walked without the sword.) The rest of the way back to Minneapolis was mostly sleepy for me, as being freshly overstimulated by the sudden reintroduction of friends to my life. Staying home was odd, but mostly productive, and I was able to pack in a few medical appointments while I was still covered by my parent’s insurance, attend a regular HEMA session, acquiring a tablet to help manage logistics. My father had a minor health complication just before I was set to return to trail, so I was a bit delayed in returning, resulting in about two weeks of downtime.

Returning to the NCT just before the exit of the ADK put me on a track following a loose connection of trails, roads, and rails. Stealth camping by night in the ditches and thickets beside the road, beneath bridges and within a couple abandoned mills located alongside some of the area’s more significant rivers. Catching the established NCT at the old Erie Canal near Rome, NY. During this bit of road problems with my air mattress came to a head and it delaminated to the point which it no longer held air. While this was covered by warranty, it still left me without a sleeping pad, so I took the canalway trail significantly farther than the NCT’s turnoff point, into Syracuse where I could find an outfitter to hopefully help with the warranty process, and at least get me a pad to use in the interim. In a way ot sort of worked out, on the drive back out to the ADK I had dropped a Ration box with the Syracuse Eastern Mtn Sports, not realizing how far off route it would be.