On the aspen trunk ahead, I see another blue-painted blaze, a vertical rectangle 2 inches by 6, identical to countless others between North Dakota and New York, all marking the way along much of the 4,600-mile North Country National Scenic Trail. I walk a few minutes more to a campsite perched on a piney knoll between two small bays of Waboose Lake, which is west of Walker in Paul Bunyan State Forest. I drop my pack, which crackles against freshly fallen leaves, and set up my little green tent on a patch of shed red needles.
Somebody, no doubt one of the local trail volunteers, has provided the site a bench with a backrest. I have no need to leave the bench after arranging within easy reach my camp stove with a boiling pot of noodles, a hunk of cheese, my water bottle, and an extra jacket.
West of Itasca State Park, the North Country National Scenic Trail trends south through White Earth State Forest, Greenwater Lake Scientific and Natural Area, and Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. Just last year, volunteers and Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa workers completed 21 miles of new path in this area.
Farther south, the route follows a network of roads, which pass through Frazee, Vergas, Pelican Rapids, Fergus Falls, and Breckenridge. Trail signs are not yet posted on this section. The North Country Trail Association and the DNR are exploring options for a section of trail through Maplewood State Park. "We're excited about the possibility of being part of the route," says park manager Don Del Greco. "What's exciting about Maplewood is we're on the transition zone. You could hear a prairie bird in one ear and see a forest creature in the other direction."
Association volunteers do trail maintenance. Ray Vlasak, of Ponsford, last year volunteered nearly 900 hours of labor and administrative skills. "Now is my time to give back after using resources for so long," he says.
On the other side of the state, the North Country Trail enters Minnesota near Jay Cooke State Park, thus joining the Superior, Border Route, and Kekekabic trails. This is the de facto route, though according to the federal legislation that created the trail, the trail should follow a direct line through 100 miles of swampland. For years, the trail association has been advocating official designation of the Arrowhead route. Its 2014 national conference will be in Duluth at Spirit Mountain, which has yet to be designated as part of the North Country Trail.
Nationally, at the trail's eastern end, in upstate New York, plans are under way to connect the North Country Trail with its famous sibling, the Appalachian Trail. Only 40 miles separate the two.
If You Go
For maps and guidebooks, go to northcountrytrail.org. For information on the Arrowhead region, consult the Superior Hiking Trail Association, Border Route Trail Association, or Kekekabic Trail Club. Nearly all trailside campsites are free and first come, first served. In Itasca State Park, except for a single campsite in the far west, all sites require a paid permit.
But the wind! Fierce gusts wreak havoc on the remaining fall colors, most notably a birch between the lakeshore and my throne. The birch hangs onto a few dozen lemon-bright leaves. Every gust subtracts a few.
I will spend the next four days hiking, camping, and driving along about 250 miles of North Country Trail between Remer and the North Dakota border. Some of the trail is incomplete and routed onto roads. Of the 150 miles of continuous path, I will hike a few sections totaling 25 miles.
Most Minnesotans have yet to learn about this trail built by volunteers. Until recently, I had no idea they had completed so many miles in this part of Minnesota, and I'm excited to see where it will take me. I'm also hoping for solitude. Lucky for me, while on the trail during the coming days, I will meet no other hikers.
Work in Progress.
From profound flatness in the Red River valley to Class V cataracts on the St. Louis River, Minnesota has 775 wandering miles of North Country Trail. Congress authorized this route in 1980, after the 1968 National Trails Systems Act designated America's first two national scenic trails, the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest. Route is sometimes a more proper term than trail, because the North Country Trail is a work in progress. Although 2,700 miles are on trail, 1,900 miles are routed elsewhere, usually on roads.
The North Country Trail Association, a nonprofit organization with 2,500 paying members, is responsible for just about everything that happens with the trail—organizing volunteers, securing work permits, and advocating for the trail in local communities and to politicians. Executive director Bruce Matthews believes that with 20 more years of efforts by association volunteers, the trail should be "almost done."
But there's no need to wait two decades to start hiking. Joan Young, who hiked the entire route in sections over the course of 20 years, says, "We need to stop saying, 'The North Country Trail, when completed, will be…' It's perfectly hikeable now."
Minnesota's route can be divided into four sections. Two are road-walks—one in the far west from the North Dakota border to near Frazee, and another from east of Ely to Remer. The other two finished sections include almost 400 miles of trail in the Arrowhead and the stretch that I'm exploring: 150 miles of trail from Remer to near Frazee, passing Waboose Lake en route.
I wake in predawn gray and crawl out of the tent. The surface of Waboose looks like glass. The lakebed is made of gray rocks the size of ostrich eggs and cracked-open mussel shells varying in iridescence from platinum to electric blue to amethyst. A pair of swans glides by, 20 yards offshore, making the only ripples in sight until the rising sun brings a breeze. How fine to be under the sky, casting a long morning shadow across the duff.
I boil water for instant coffee and drink it in a patch of warm sunlight before packing and hiking out the way I'd come in. The walk is less than a mile, but the forest changes along the way, first leading through a stand of fat red and white pines, then dropping into a glen packed with young aspens. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pale, thin aspen trunks rise from the ground. Leafless, the trees appear brittle. I give one a gentle tug. It is not brittle, but lithe, and it snaps back into place. This must be what lawn grass is like to a mouse. The wind, which has been building since sunup, reaches the aspen grove and rustles the treetops. The trail rises again from the glen and leads into a mix of maples and birches.
I reach my car and drive to Itasca State Park. From there, I'm going to walk 10 miles across the park on the North Country Trail, spending a night along the way. But first, I must set up a shuttle from one trailhead to the other. I stash my backpack at the base of a balsam fir on the east end of the park, drive to the west end, and leave the car in the trailhead lot. I hop on my bicycle and ride, against the wind, until reaching the eastern trailhead. I retrieve my pack, lock the bike to a signpost, and start hiking again. Within minutes I am skirting the first of several clear, shallow ponds.
The trail follows tiny ridges that hem the ponds, some of which are linked by bogs or narrow channels. It is an intricate landscape of mixed forest, rife with massive pines that tower over a lower canopy of old oak. With so much to look at, a different pond never far away, six miles drop as easily as leaves from the Waboose birch. Nearing my new camp, I find the trail winds through a cluster of lakes and at one point crosses a land bridge barely 10 feet wide between two of the lakes. I reach the campsite on Hernando DeSoto Lake and am almost disappointed to stop. The notion of going nonstop all the way to North Dakota seems reasonable.
My tent stands on an isthmus between DeSoto and Mikenna lakes. It would be a great place to sit out and watch darkness fall, but the temperature drops as the wind intensifies. I take shelter. By morning the ground is plastered with the season's first snow. It is a sloppy mix, like a 3-inch layer of flavorless snow cone.
I don't linger in camp this morning. Even wearing every article of clothing from my pack, I am cold from the wind, which blasts unobstructed across DeSoto Lake. I start walking, and in minutes I am warm enough to peel off a fleece sweater. After an hour of trudging through wet snow, my boots and feet are soaked.
To cross deep forest in the demanding cold, however, is exhilarating. I stop to admire a bog with ribbons of dark water lacing through hillocks topped by golden tamaracks. Chill sets in, and again I walk.
Soon, a loose cloud of small, chattering birds flitters from branch to stump. One of the birds pauses long enough for me to identify it as a junco, the first I've seen in months, freshly returned from a summer spent farther north. The birds and I leapfrog for a mile, until they fail to reappear. The forest is suddenly quiet, save for the wet smacks of snow sliding from spruce boughs and hitting the ground.
A couple of miles later, I arrive at my car. Midway through packing wet gear into the trunk, I turn toward the opening where the next stretch of the North Country Trail re-enters forest. I consider the breadth of ever-changing landscapes along this epic path. I've seen a smattering of these vistas, and can guess at others, but the best way to know is through experience. I start the engine and drive onto a dirt road, in search of the nearest café.