Long distance hiker enjoys local stretch of North Country Trail.

May 13, 2021

Long distance hiker enjoys local stretch of North Country Trail.

Outdoors by Joan Young

Mary McKinley, trail name “Denali,” passed through Manistee, Mason, and Lake counties in early May on the North Country Trail. It used to be that very, very few people even knew the NCT existed. Now, the trail is hosting a handful of long-distance hikers each year.

Since the trail is over 4,600 miles long, stretching from Vermont to North Dakota, most hopeful end-to-enders spread a hike over two or more years. Denali is no exception. Last year, she hiked from the northern terminus of the Superior Hiking Trail (concurrent with the NCT) along Lake Superior’s north shore, to Petoskey. This year, she’s planning to walk at least from Petoskey to the Michigan/Ohio border. Then she’s taking a break for some family events. After that, “Who knows,” she says.

She was introduced to long hikes when she volunteered to work with some Boy Scouts who were hiking for their 50-miler patch in 2004. She’s never looked back. She learned about the North Country Trail on a U.S. Forest Service sign that named the National Scenic Trails. She is also friends with Nimblewill Nomad (Eb Eberhard), NCT End-to-End hiker #8. He told her about the NCT, which sparked her interest. What actually made her begin this, the longest of the National Scenic Trails, was the pandemic. Many of the trails discouraged hikers last year. But the NCT is lightly traveled, and there was no specific ban, although some camping options were closed. Denali also noted that resupply was often difficult as stores were also having trouble stocking items.

Denali’s ultimate goal is to join the super-elite group of hikers who have walked all eleven of the National Scenic Trails. To date, she has completed the Appalachian Trail, the Natchez Trace Trail, the Florida Trail, and parts of the Continental Divide and North Country Trails.

A retired math teacher from northwest Florida State College, Denali now spends most of her time hiking, and she jumps around the country to hit better weather months along the various trails. Her permanent home is in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. She’s a long-time advocate for, and volunteer with, the Florida Trail.

This writer had the privilege to spend a day with her, as Denali did all the “zero” day chores. A zero is a day where no miles are walked. It typically includes such tasks as catching up on sleep, doing laundry and restocking supplies, repairing damaged gear, and eating. Eating looms huge in the minds of people who are walking 15 or more miles in a day. Denali is small. “I struggle to keep my weight over 100 pounds on long hikes,” she admits. 

She and I drove to the Lake Michigan shore. Although glimpses of the lake are visible from the trail, she wanted to really experience the big water. Because she chose to spend a rainy day off the trail, Lake Michigan gave her a gray and foggy welcome, but she enjoyed the dunes and the wild feel of the waves. Then we went to a local eatery to fill up the food tank with some extra protein.

Some of her favorite places in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula so far have included Sand Lakes Quiet Area east of Traverse City, the three days of hiking along the Manistee River, and Sterling Marsh here in Lake County.

Perhaps, with a National Scenic Trail right in our “back yard,” we’ll become known as a super place for hikers to be welcomed, to resupply, take a break, and enjoy West Michigan’s other recreational pleasures.

I also hiked part of a day with Denali, as she continued south (east on the trail). We couldn’t stop sharing trail stories and talking about mutual trail friends, gear, trail politics, and outdoor experiences. 

If you see someone walking with a big backpack, don’t jump to conclusions such as: they must be homeless, they must be crazy, or they are vagrants negatively affecting our property values. Most of these people spend money as they pass through. Eating out is a real treat after days of trail food. Laundry must be done, and often gear repairs are needed. Welcome them even though they are strangers to you. Talk to them even though they smell as if they’ve been wearing the same clothes for six days (they have). Hear their trail tales. You will probably be highly entertained, and you will certainly become more educated about the people who live with terminal wanderlust.

Joan Young, who lives in Amber Township, is an avid hiker who has the honor of having been the first woman to hike the entire North Country Trail.

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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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