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Following the North
Country Trail

It's a long trail -- so long that there only have been a handful of attempts to go the full length of the NCNST, and fewer successful ones.

Every year, two thousand people or more set out to hike the Appalachian Trail from end to end. Hundreds make it successfully. The Continental Divide and Pacific Crest Trails also have tens of successful end-to-end hikes each year. But, you can count the number of successful end-to-end hikes of the NCNST on one hand and still have a thumb left over.

There are a few more long-distance hikers who have hiked segments of several hundred miles, but really pretty few, considering. The most numerous of these are on the western part of the Finger Lakes Trail, where an organized program encouraging end-to-end hikers has had the spinoff of about eighty 300 mile NCNST hikes over the past ten years. In addition, there are a handful of people that have walked most of the Buckeye Trail where it shares its route with the NCNST, and a handful of people who are section-hiking the trail, expecting to take many years to finish. But, long-distance hiking on the nation's longest scenic trail is rare.

The first attempt to end-to-end the trail came in 1974, when a former alcoholic street person, Peter Wolfe, decided to hike the full length of the trail to celebrate drying out. It took him seven years to complete the journey, and he became one of the early legends of the trail in the process.

Before Wolfe finished the trail, and before it was officially designated, the trail had its first single-season end-to-ender: Carolyn Hoffman. She started from Crown Point with deep snow still on the ground on March 5, 1978 with a party of six, but four soon dropped out. She continued with a companion, Lou Ann Fellowes, until Lou Ann was injured in southern Ohio. Alone, Hoffman rode a bike several hundred miles north until Fellowes could rejoin her and take to walking again. The two ended their hike at Lake Sakakawea 222 days after starting.

It was sixteen years before the next attempt to end-to-end the trail in a single season. On March 12, 1994, Ed Talone, of Maryland, and a friend, Sue Lockwood, of Van Buren, Missouri, started eastward from Cincinnati. Lockwood, being blind and severly diabetic, needed daily kidney dialysis, so the two were followed in a van containing a portable dialysis unit, driven by Lockwood's brother, Gordon Smith. Lockwood and Smith had to part company from Talone in eastern New York, due to the need for hospital treatment for Sue; he continued to Crown Point, took Amtrak back to Cincinnati, and started north. Smith and Lockwood rejoined him in southern Michigan, and they continued westward reaching Lake Sakakawea on November 21. Talone hiked 4500 miles in 243 days, including side trips. In spite of hospitalization and severe personal difficulties, Lockwood completed 2800 miles. An account of their trip is linked to this page.

The final end-to-end hike was completed in 1995 by Chet Fromm, a former director of the NCTA. Fromm hiked the trail in four summers, with his first year, 1991, in New York, shortened by injury. He finished the eastern half of the trail eastbound from White Cloud, MI, in 1992, then returned to White Cloud in 1993 to hike Michigan and Wisconsin westbound, completing the Minnesota and North Dakota segments of the trail in the early summer of 1995.An account of his trip is linked to this page.

At around 4400 miles, depending on which route is taken, the NCNST is more than twice the length of the AT. Generally speaking, it's easier going than the AT, with much less up and down hiking, but it's a big number to swallow under any circumstances.

The sheer size of the North Country Trail tends to make the idea of an end-to-end hike an awesome one; yet, the trail has another obstacle, one that is easier to avoid on the nation's other long trails, which run more or less on a north-south axis: winter. Most end-to-enders of the big north-south trails start in the south in the early spring, and follow spring northward, eventually racing with fall's southward advance. This doesn't work on the NCT, which runs more or less east and west. While its center dips down a bit, either end is well up in latitude and in the country of long winters.

In an average year, potential end-to-enders have about a maximum of 210 to 220 days of reasonable weather between hard winters. Hoffman probably started a bit early; it would seem better to not start at Crown Point much before April 1, or perhaps even April 15, and the chilling winds and snow in the open country of North Dakota would seem to argue against travel there after early November for all but the hardiest individuals. By starting in Cincinnati, Talone and Lockwood were able to push the window open a little wider, and they had the luck to catch one of the mildest North Dakota Novembers in memory. But still, it's a lot of walking. Talone and Lockwood had to average about 18 miles a day, as can be seen by the chart -- and that includes rest days, travel days, side trips, and everything else, so a typical day for them probably was close to 25 miles a day.

With winter facing the potential end-to-ender at both ends of the trip, a basic decision has to be made: go east, or go west?

Each has its advantages and disadvantages, though on the face of it, in the early part of the trip, starting from the west has a slight edge. Hikers at either end will have to be starting at about the time the snow turns to mud. Heading eastbound from central North Dakota takes advantage of the fact that not much of the trail has been completed there; most of the first 500 miles or so of the hike will have to be on roads, and even gravel roads are less muddy than forest trails. Besides, those chill spring winds would be at the back -- but as the eastbound trip continues, hikers would get into the heavy forest country right at the height of the spring mosquito and blackfly season.

Heading west, at least in a season of light snow the winter before, puts the hardest part of the trip right at the beginning, but once it warms up the bugs will be a little less of a problem. Once the first third of the trip is over, there will be occasional tough days, but the hiker will have an idea of how hard they have to travel to get caught back up with that eighteen or twenty miles per day average.

Probably the most effective tactic for the single-season end to ender is to maximize the weather window, by heading out from southern Ohio toward one end of the trail, traveling from there to the other end, and hiking back to southern Ohio. Talone and Lockwood did it partly this way, heading from Cincinnati to both ends of the trail; as Talone put it, "Who wants to look forward to getting to Cincinnati?"

But that 18 or more miles a day is still there. To be able to make the trip in a more leisurely fashion, taking time to stop and smell the roses, really demands breaking the trip up into two or more sections. Each year of a two-year trip is still pretty close to doing the AT in a year, although perhaps easier due to the lesser elevation change and generally easier going overall.

One scenario for the slower hiker involves starting in North Dakota in the first part of April. The target here is to be at the Mackinac Straits in Michigan by the first of September, to use the annual Mackinac Bridge Walk on Labor Day to hike every mile of the trail from end to end. Continuing south, the hiker should be able to stay ahead of most of the snowflakes, until reaching the Cincinnati area in late October.

While it would be possible to continue on east through the winter -- somewhat milder than further north -- the hiker could also take a break for about three or four months to go and see if the family is still alive, or, perhaps, grab a bus and do the Florida National Scenic Trail; at ten miles a day, this could take about four months, but in March or April the hiker will want to be back on the NCT for another four or five months of hiking. This approach obviously takes rather more than a year, but the hiker gets to end-to-end two national scenic trails in a single 5000 mile bargain.

Even someone who can only commit part of a year to the hike can still hike a large and satisfying hunk of the NCNST in this fashion, and a hike, say, from central Minnesota, somewhere around Itasca State Park to Grand Rapids, Michigan would see some spectacular hiking -- the Chippewa National Forest, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the Lake Superior shore on the Superior Hiking Trail, the Chequamegon and Ottawa National Forests, the Porcupine Mountains, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Hiawatha National Forest, the Mackinac Bridge, and the Manistee National Forest -- about 1700 miles of memorable hiking in four to six months. Cincinnati to Crown Point is about as long a hike, somewhat more rugged, but passing through some memorable scenery, as well.

Most NCNST long-distance hikers to this point have had Appalachian Trail experience, but the North Country Trail is a rather different experience.

The biggest difference they will find is the general lack of development, compared to the Appalachian Trail. The NCNST is about where the AT was forty years ago, and in some respects, not that far along. There is not the nearly-completed off-road trail, nor the extensive network of shelters and other hiker amenities; it's sometimes hundreds of miles between NCNST shelters. There is not the extensive collection of guidebooks and other trail data that makes an AT hike very much a known factor; nor is there the huge backlog of experience from other hikers. There is not the crowd of thru-hikers on predictible, programmed schedules; in fact, there will be few hikers of any kind met, except in certain popular areas such as the Pictured Rocks. There are few trail towns where an invasion of hikers is a common and expected experience, but at least there are a few of them; in most places, though, the local folk will be but vaguely aware of the trail's existence. There will not be the sociability of the fellow thru-hikers; to date, no NCNST end-to-ender has ever met another end-to-ender on the trail. There will not be the trail names, the common experiences; there will not be the AT charisma, but at the same time, there will not be the AT chauvinism, either. But, a successful completion of an end-to-end will not be treated as a routine occurance, as it is on the Appalachian Trail; it will be a true and a rare achievement.

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This page updated by Wes Boyd on September 30, 1998