REGIONAL- Most people have no idea that the longest trail in the National Trails System, which stretches 4,800 miles from Vermont to North Dakota, runs right through Ely and Tower-Soudan.
But Joan Young knows. She was the first woman to hike the entire length of the trail, and now, at age 74, is doing her second traverse, though this time she is doing it with help from numerous friends and camping most nights in her small travel trailer. She started out on Dec. 1, 2021 near her home in Michigan, hiking east to the trailhead in Vermont. She then drove to the other end of the trail in North Dakota and is hiking back to Michigan.
“I’m just crazy about the North Country Trail,” she said.
“I practically spent my entire childhood outdoors,” she said, “but my interest in hiking started with the Girl Scouts.” There she met her lifelong friend Marie Altenau. The two grew up, married, raised their families.
“I’ve kind of bumbled through life,” said Joan, “never deciding what to do. I’d do one thing for a while, and then do something else.”
Joan grew up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, but has been living in Michigan, now in Scottville, for over 50 years.
“I took a long break and did the family thing,” Joan said. Once her three children were grown, she learned about the North Country Trail.
“Marie and I dug out some old equipment and did a three-day backpacking trip,” Joan said. “We’ve been doing it every year since.”
Along the way they upgraded their equipment from their Girl Scouting days. And Marie joined Joan for about half the miles on Joan’s first full North Country Trail trek.
“The diversity of the trail is what is unique,” Joan said. “You can’t go five miles without finding something new to learn about or see.”
In northeast Minnesota, Joan has been digging into the area’s mining history and geology. In western Minnesota, you are hiking across the prairie. Everywhere she hikes, she is observing and recording the plant species she finds, often finding rare plants that haven’t been recorded in the area.
Last weekend, Joan made her way through the Tower and Ely area, and Joan and Marie stopped by the Timberjay office after Joan had finished her allotted daily mileage.
The trail follows portions of existing hiking and paved biking trails like the Mesabi Trail, but in some areas still follows roads. Trail-wide, over 3,300 miles of the trail are off-road, the rest follows roads, mostly rural ones, but some are busier.
Her goal this time is to traverse at least 15 miles a day, and while most of this trip is consisting of day hikes, she will be backpacking the portion of the trail that travels on the Kekakabic and Border Route trails in the Boundary Waters.
“It’s in deference to my age,” she said. “I want to succeed at this.”
Young has had help from both old and new friends this trip. Marie spent a month supporting the hike in the spring, and now another month this late summer and early fall. She’s been doing the cooking, shopping, and preparing trail lunches for Young, as well as dropping her off at the daily starting point and picking her up when the hiking day is over. While she used to be a frequent hiking companion, these days, she said, she isn’t physically able keep up with Joan’s daily mileage, but clearly still has the travel bug.
The two spent Thursday night camped at Silver Rapids Lodge, and after Joan’s mileage on Friday, spent the late afternoon at Ely’s Whiteside Park, browsing the craft booths at the Harvest Moon Festival.
“You don’t see other people very often on the trail,” Joan said. “When I first started, there were maybe three people in 10 years who had hiked the whole thing. Now, several people are doing the trail each year.”
Many people are hiking the trail one state at a time. And the trail association has created a 100-mile challenge, where hikers can earn an annual badge by hiking 100 miles on the trail during the year. Over 3,000 people signed up for the challenge last year, Joan said.
The trail differs from other more well-known trails like the Appalachian or the Superior Hiking Trail in that there are not designated campsites, and many of the areas surrounding the trail are not open for camping.
“You can just hop on the Appalachian Trail with your backpack and camp anywhere,” she said. “There are over 150 different landowners along this trail, and they set their own rules for camping. It takes some planning.”
The trail association has been working on developing trailside campsites. The trail often goes through small towns with public parks, some are open to camping, she said, but others don’t allow it.
“You can’t just go out on the trail and wing it,” she said.
The trail is supported by over 30 regional trail groups, as well as affiliated trail associations.
Young updates her blog to keep a record of “My Quality Day”, with observations and photographs while on the trail, noting landmarks and history of interest, as well as the many interesting plants she finds.
During a stressful time in her life, she decided to set parameters for what made a quality day, and if any of those things on her list happened, she would power through.
“I don’t tend to be an eternal optimist,” she writes in one blog post. “One of my mother’s nicknames for me was the little thundercloud.” But writing down her successes has become a part of her daily routine. “It reminds me that there is something to be cheerful about.”
Joan Young’s Elements of a Quality Day
1. Experience something new or beautiful
2. Do something outside
3. Learn something new
4. Accomplish something
5. Do a service for the Lord
6. If I just feel good anyway for no particular reason (in other words, it’s not a bad day if none of the above happen, but I’m not feeling down about it. This prevents the logical progression, “if none of 1-5 happen then I must be depressed.”)
Young is a writer with numerous books, including two books specifically about the trail, and several series of fictional mystery books, including a series of mysteries for younger readers. She writes an award-winning monthly column for the Ludington, Michigan Daily News called “Get Off the Couch,” and an outdoor column for the Mason County Press. She is fan of small-town newspapers, and a fictional weekly newspaper is featured in her Dead Mule Swamp mystery series.
You can find Joan’s blog postings on myqualityday.blogspot.com, or can follow her adventures on Facebook, search for Joan H. Young.
More on the trail
The North Country National Scenic Trail traverses through more than 160 federal, state and local public lands, including 10 national forests and over 100 state parks, forests and game areas.
Free downloadable, printable maps of each trail section are available online at northcountrytrail.org.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here