Carrying it Forward on the North Country Trail

December 14, 2021

Carrying it Forward on the North Country Trail

By Joan Young, MCP Contributing Writer.

On Dec. 1, 2021 Amber Township resident Joan Young began her journey to hike the entire North Country Trail continuously. She began her year-long trek at the Manistee National Forest’s Timber Creek Campground on US 10 in Lake County. The first half of the hike will take her to Middlebury, Vermont. She will then drive to Sakakawea State Park in central North Dakota to begin the hike back to Michigan. Young, 73, was the first woman to completely hike the NCT, completing 10 years of segmented hikes in 2010.

I’ve just completed 10 days of hiking on my quest to hike the entire North Country National Scenic Trail. Ten days is just a drop in the bucket of what remains to be accomplished if I can pull off this attempt.

My first five days, I backpacked from US 10 to the southern end of the Manistee National Forest. I’ve sort of wondered what I was thinking, since these were cold days with snow. But cooking in the dark, and taking down a tent covered with ice were accomplished. All my tech plans to blog from the trail failed, as my new phone, purchased to overcome battery issues with the old one, also refused to play in the cold. Perhaps those five days lent some validity to the hike. Various friends hiked with me on these days.

Now, I’m spending warm nights in my little travel trailer, and a helper delivers me to the trail each morning and picks me up after hiking 15 or so miles. It feels very cushy. Well, the last two miles of each day still feel fairly awful, but I’m doing them. My feet and legs are holding up well. There has only been one worrisome twinge, and it seems to be on the mend.

You might think that since I’ve done the entire trail once (completed in 2010) that there is little left to learn. Not so! Miles and miles of the NCT have changed since I saw them the first time. The agencies and organizations that manage the trail are continually striving to get more trail off road, or into more natural settings. 

The trail through the Manistee National Forest is basically the same as it always was, but south of Croton Dam it is almost all different than when I first hiked it. There are many miles that are now off-road on paved multi-use trails in Kent County. More state game areas have allowed the trail passage with natural-surface trail. There are beautiful wooded and hilly miles near Lowell.

I like to think that I am carrying the “idea” of the trail forward. I’ve been involved with the NCT long enough that I have gained something of a reputation for being part of the institutional memory. I remember most of the founders of the Association (which was before I discovered the trail). When people say, “But there is so much road walk,” I can reply with certainty that there is much more off-road trail, and I can point out exactly where those changes are. When people comment on the use of paved trail, I can say, “Yes, but it’s so much better than being on the road, and it’s a good option until a better route can be found.”

At this point, I’ve hiked for 10 days in a row and am south of I-96. This still doesn’t feel epic to me, but I have more confidence that I’ll be able to complete the trail. Various people have hiked with me and help solve the “problem” of constantly wondering if each little pain is just something minor or something to watch and worry about. Visiting with them takes my mind off myself. Today, I’m taking a day off to rest and reboot for the next section.

I try to sing, pray, enjoy every bit of topography, scenery, history, and culture. These are the wonderful gifts the North Country Trail has to offer.

Many events of the hike so far have been memorable, but perhaps the highlight so far is meeting a young woman named Lydia, who was literally carrying forward the future of the trail. We met at Siedman Park near Grand Rapids, a section of off-road trail I’d never seen before. Some other ladies who hiked with me a few miles were enjoying the rosy-cheeked baby she was carrying. Lydia said that Otto “LOVES the cold, trees, birds, watching the river, touching leaves and tasting snow.” 

The ladies eventually mentioned what I was trying to do. 

Lydia said, “My grandmother was involved in the North Country Trail. She’s from White Cloud.”
So, I figured I might at least know who this person is, and I asked.
Lydia replied, “Ginny Wunsch.”
I practically jumped up and down! Ginny Wunsch, who died a couple of years ago, is probably one of the 10 or 12 most important people in the early history of the North Country Trail Association. She is the person who acquired the Birch Grove Schoolhouse for its first headquarters. It’s where the sign that David and I delivered to the current headquarters was located. Ginny was an early board member. She answered requests for info with hand-written letters! Ginny Wunsch is legendary, and this was her granddaughter and great-grandson!

So, David and I carried (by car!) the old midway sign to Lowell for preservation and display. Lydia is carrying the future of the trail as Otto grows to learn more of the woods and his great-grandmother’s legacy. 

I hope I am carrying the spirit of the North Country Trail forward as I hike. When I hiked it before, hardly anyone had heard of it. This time around, people are coming to search me out and are excited about the trail. I won’t turn down a legacy like that!

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This story is copyrighted © 2021, all rights reserved by Joan Young, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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