Shortly before noon on September 6, 2010, Karen and I stepped from the woods onto a road called Minister Creek, completing our trek through the Allegheny National Forest on the North Country National Scenic Trail. We had hiked for three days, over some of the most taxing hills on the entire trail, plunged into thickets of waist-high weeds and briers, and, of course, walked in the rain. Our 100-mile quest for the summer of 2010 was complete. We didn’t jump and celebrate with high-fives or shouts of joy, instead, we reveled in the satisfaction of knowing we had accomplished our goal. Even though we had endured a lot of hardships on this hike, it was a great time, and I will always cherish the memories we made along the way.
For the long Labor Day weekend and the start of our hike, we decided to camp Friday night at the southern terminus of the trail near a little place called Amsler Springs. There was a shelter not far from the road where we could spend the night and get an early start Saturday morning. After positioning one vehicle at the end of our remaining section, we drove back to find the shelter. There were many campers scattered along the road as we headed south, and we were sure that someone would have claimed the shelter before we could get there. But when we arrived, there was no one around and, luckily, we would have the shelter all to ourselves.
Neither of us slept very well that night. First nights on the trail always burdened your thoughts with anticipation and wonder, strange sounds in the night wake you up continually, and the hard surface you lay on makes you toss and turn for a comfortable position. I could hear cars going by on the road just outside the woods and I would listen to make sure they didn’t stop. Karen got up in the night and told me of a phenomenon she had seen in the meadow with her headlamp. There was such a heavy mist in the air that the grass sparkled like lightning bugs and the air ahead of her headlamp was like a psychedelic, underwater shower. I got up later and experienced it too. It was almost like walking through a snowstorm of water vapor.
In the morning Karen made a delightful breakfast of cheesy eggs, strawberries, and pressed coffee. We packed and locked the truck, loaded our packs, and set off into the woods. Both Karen and I were carrying heavier loads on this hike – three days worth of food and extra warm clothes for the chilly nights. The early morning temperature was about 60 and it would stay cool for most of the day. It seemed nice to hike without enduring sweltering weather for a change.
We had to agree that the section of the NCT we hiked that day was the worst of any we had hiked so far. The trail traversed many hills almost straight up without the aid of switchbacks to ease the climb. And then on the other side the trail would drop straight down in places leaving you fearful of loosing your footing. When the path followed a stream in the valley, the weeds and briers choked the trail so that it was hardly recognizable. On top of all that, it rained off and on for most of the day. We were careful to keep dry by donning rain ponchos when we could feel sprinkles. With cold temperatures and two more days of hiking, it could be dangerous to have wet gear. In the afternoon, we walked through an interesting section of huge boulders the size of houses, with crevices, caves and ledges creating mazes through their openings. It would be the kind of place that, as a kid, I could have spent all day exploring.
We hiked almost 12 miles to a place called Kellettville, where we were planning to spend the night. The trail joined a forest road for the last two miles before town and we passed many campsites occupied by day campers in trailers and house size tents. It seemed that they all had dogs that wanted to attack us. We didn’t really relish the idea of loud music and barking dogs all night so we decided to spend the money to stay at the state park a mile further down the road.
As we walked into the state park campground we saw two men sitting at a picnic table at one of the sites. We couldn’t see any backpacks, but you get kind of a sixth sense for recognizing other hikers, and these two guys fit the profile. They were Ted and Paul from Meadville and Erie respectively, and they were hiking the trail in the opposite direction we were. We chatted for a few minutes and then they invited us to stay at their campsite. They told us that two tents were allowed on each site and it would save us the cost of another campsite. Karen and I both thought it would be a great idea so we gratefully accepted their offer and pitched our tent at their site.
Later on that evening as we made our dinner, we learned that Paul and Ted were both active leaders with the Boy Scouts. It is a tribute to men like these that give so much of their time shaping the character of our younger generation. I remember my days as a Boy Scout and attribute much of my love of the outdoors and backpacking to the time I spent there. I bet my younger brother, Daryl, still remembers the competition we won for flag signaling at one Boy Scout Jamboree.
It rained in the night. When morning came, we packed a wet tent and slipped back into our soggy shoes. One of Karen’s shoes had a sole that was coming loose and she was worried about it totally delaminating on the trail. I forgot to pack any duct tape for emergency repairs, but Paul had a small roll that he offered to her. Everyone that backpacks carries some small luxury items in their packs and one of Karen’s was a small sample bottle of Baileys Irish Cream for our coffee in the morning. When Paul and Ted saw that, their eyes lit up with delight. The trade was made – Irish Cream for duct tape. We were all very happy.
They told us what information they could about the trail ahead of us and we tried to prepare them for what they were about to hike through. We said our good-byes and headed out for our second day of hiking.
As it turns out, the rest of the trail was delightful compared to what we had come through. There was a long section, newly relocated and graded, with bridges across streams and ditching to drain the wet areas. Much of this work was done by a Boy Scout troop that maintains the trail in that area. A lot of the path went along abandoned railroad beds so there was nothing too steep going up or down, and the trail was clear of briars and stinging nettles. We hiked at a good pace, covering quite a few miles by lunchtime.
Perhaps it was the cooler weather, or the fact that the humidity didn’t tire me out as much, but I had a voracious appetite on this hike – we both did! Our food was quickly disappearing and we made joking accusations of what we would do to the other to get their Rice Krispy Treats. Ted even gave me a stick of beef jerky for the trail as we parted. Karen doesn’t like jerky or beef sticks so I leave them out of our backpacking diet. Ether she was very hungry or else the jerky was very good, but she said, “Umm, I like this jerky”, so I was forced to share with her.
We stopped in an area where it was sunny and breezy to spread out the tent and let it dry. Karen had been carrying an extra pound of water saturated in the rolled up tent. Near where we rested while waiting for the tent to dry, I noticed a huge pile of rocks. Apparently, years ago, before this area reverted back to forest, this was farmland. Farmers cleared the land and hauled stones from the fields and threw them in piles. In many parts of the forest, you can see remains of old cellars and stone fences, reminders of a time long ago when pioneers scratched out a living in a harsh land, finally giving in to the climate, steep terrain, and infertile soil of the area.
We were walking blissfully along a short while later and were suddenly startled by a dog standing in the trail ahead of us. We both stopped and waited with apprehension for the owner to come walking along and take command of the dog. You never know if a dog is vicious by nature and neither of us wanted to find out. All of a sudden the dog bolted away up the path and we continued on. Seconds later, Karen noticed it circling around us through the woods and before we knew it, it came up from behind us. It stopped again and looked at us for a while and then turned and ran the other way. Again, we looked back and it was following us. We conjured up all sorts of scenarios: Was the dog lost and trying to find its owner? Was the owner hurt and the dog trying to get us to help? Finally the dog came up to us and we could tell that it was friendly. She wore a collar with the name Emmie and a telephone number embroidered into it. We tried to take a picture of the collar for reference, but she took off again, excitedly darting up the path and out into the forest.
“If she comes back to look at us again and then runs ahead,” Karen told me, “that’s the universal sign in dog language that someone needs help and she wants us to follow her. What is it girl? Timmy’s fallen down the well?”
A few minutes later the mystery was solved. We came upon a group of campers in trailers and tents and the noises of people enjoying the weekend. Emmie belonged to this group and was just romping through the woods and having a ball.
We started to think about finding a place to camp. We had come well over 10 miles and both of us were starting to get tired. Our water supply was getting low and we would need to find a stream to fill up for the night. There just wasn’t any water as the trail followed the crest of the hills, so we hiked on, through several dry ravines, and along the remains of an old railroad bed. Once we though of stopping for the night and rationing what little water we had left until morning. But for me that sounded too much like deprivation – giving up our dehydrated meal and eating dry tuna fish.
By the time we came to a spring, filled our water bottles, and found a place to camp, it was close to dusk. The sun was low through the trees and the air had that evening chill feel to it. We had hiked over 16 miles, a heroic distance for us. We were both exhausted, and starved for our dinner.
It was a very nice campsite with a fire ring someone had made and a stream nearby for our water supply. Karen prepared our dinner as I started a fire. It would be chilly after the sun went down and the fire would feel good before we climbed into our sleeping bags. I think I could have eaten double the portion of our freeze-dried spaghetti, it tasted so good. Afterward, we sat by the fire drinking coffee, soaking up the heat, and just relaxing after a long tiring day. We fed sticks into the flames for a long time until there was no more wood left, and then we moved closer to the glowing coals until at last the darkness and the night chill drove us into our tent.
During the night, I awoke with pain in my right knee. I had been favoring my injured left knee all day by letting my right knee take all the shock of downhill brakes and steps, now the good knee was screaming from overuse. I needed to take a high dose of Vitamin I (hiker slang for ibuprofen) before I could get back to sleep. In the morning I was sore and achy but the pain went away after I moved around awhile.
The last day was fairly uneventful. It was cold in the morning, making for perfect hiking weather. We only had about 5 miles left to hike, so we broke camp in no hurry, and enjoyed a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. It was almost 9:00 by the time we got underway and I took the lead with a slow pace to work the soreness from my joints.
We walked through a section I had hiked before called Minister Creek, famous for it’s house size boulders and attractive trout streams. I kept telling Karen that we should carry a fishing pole and catch a trout for dinner next time. She thought I was nuts and just had fish on my brain from lack of food. We did find several blackberries on this section, though, and we stopped to pick and eat every one of them.
And that was about it for our North Country Trail odyssey. We found a hometown restaurant in Marionville and gorged ourselves with ham and egg omelets, french toast, home fries, and many cups of coffee. We waited for what seemed a long time to be served, but the food was very good. Karen drove me to my truck and we transferred our gear. And then, in a distracted sort of good bye… figuring out which road to get on… I’ll see you soon…and she was gone. We were already back in the other world.
A hundred miles on foot is a long way. We hiked in rain, endured sweltering heat and humidity, were attacked by swarms of insects, got blisters, aches, pains, and shivered in the chill morning air. We were hungry most of the time, reached almost complete exhaustion climbing some of the hills, and bled from arms and legs while walking through the briers. But here’s the thing: I enjoyed every minute of it. I love the fact that I’m exercising my body, burning calories faster than I can put them in my mouth, and breathing clean forest air. I like being able to cope with basic necessities where goals and wants are simple. And I like being out in nature and seeing what’s just over that next hill.
It’s hard for me to put into words what it’s meant to me to have Karen to hike with this summer, and I know she wouldn’t want me to here. I’ll just say that it swells my heart with love and pride to have a daughter like her. Stay tuned for continuing adventures of the Soggy Shoe Hikers!