Solo Fastpacking the North Country Trail

Laura Hoban and her husband, David, have 3 daughters. She was a teacher and after spending 14 years in her local elementary school she now homeschools her daughters. Laura loves trail running, camping, fastpacking, and traveling. She just recently completed her second 100 mile trail race.

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Solo fastpacking the North Country Trail! 67 miles over 2 nights 3 days

Day 1: Late start and 14 miles on the NCT

The day started by backpacking out with the family from Chapel Beach at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. We dropped my car near Grand Marias, MI and drove to Tahquamenon Falls which is my starting point.  We had lunch and checked out the big, beautiful, powerful waterfall. Then it was time for hugs and goodbyes for 3 days as I began my solo fastpacking adventure doing 67 miles on the North Country Trail.  

This is the first time I’ve taken off on a trail that has dispersed camping, and I didn’t have each day planned out with reservations like in a state or national park. There are no bear boxes, fire rings, water spots, tent pads, or cell service. I am on my own in the middle of the forest, needing to make sure I get water, can follow the trail, and can handle whatever comes my way. 

Using my map I knew I needed to get in at least 12 miles so I could get to a water source to refill. Then I decided to go a few miles beyond that as I could stop whenever I wanted. So why not go until it’s close to sunset? All I’m going to do is set up my tent and sleep. 

The first 4 miles were along a beautiful river.  Halfway through my trek I came upon wild blueberries and thought of Emily as she loved picking these the most when we camped over the weekend. They were a tasty treat! 

I came upon some dark, stagnet water and was running low and rationing what I had to make it to the river crossing at mile 12. So glad when I got there! Then I saw a white unmarked van on the side of the road and a guy fishing. I hoped to go by unnoticed, but he saw me and seemed surprised I was out there in the middle of nowhere. He asked how I got there and I just told him I’m hiking through with friends. I quickly filtered water and filled my bottles and got on my way. 

The woods are so pretty and it was a warm day, and now that the sun was getting lower the mosquitos were coming out to feast. I put on my bug head net, rain coat & pants for protection. It was time to find a spot for my tent and a branch to hang my food bag on. Once set up it felt good to change out of my sweaty clothes. Feels good to rest in the tent and slip away to hopefully a good night’s sleep. I feel like a speck in the woods. Tomorrow I plan to make it out to Lake Superior. 14 miles done today.

Day 2: 27 miles on the NCT

Woke up to sprinkles on my tent so I packed up as quick as I could before I had to pack up in full rain and add extra water weight to my gear. I skipped making breakfast and took off instead. The morning was rainy, cool, and full of mosquitos. I was thankful there was no lightning, and that I had my bug head net. I could hear the mosquitos buzzing and see them land on my head net!

The nice, blue lakes on my map were dark, murky ponds without access to the water from the marshy borders all the way around, so I ended up going many miles trying to ration what was left of my water. I was able to try at one scuzzy pond, and got green algae on my water bag and it also started to clog my filter. Had to stop trying there or I wouldn’t have a working filter. I brought tablets for backup, but I don’t think it would be a good idea with that thick of brown water. Movin’ on. I wondered what people did for water that hiked it and didn’t cover miles as fast as I did.

I was also starting to notice a small blister on my left heel, but with the rain and drenched socks there was no hope in taping it up or trying to protect it.  It was what it was and was going to grow. At this point it was a very mild discomfort, didn’t affect my stride, so it was not a big deal.

Luckily a few miles down the trail I came upon a rustic campsite that had a water pump. Such a welcome sight! I was a bit dehydrated from lack of water the evening before too. I took a break to make my coffee and oatmeal I had skipped this morning. That felt awesome. I  headed out with renewed energy off down the trail again. The rain started again and it was cool and a bit foggy.  

Pretty soon I came to Lake Superior. It was gray and hard to distinguish the horizon from the water due to the gloomy weather, but still a welcome sight. The trail turned a bit sandy here on the wooded, brushy bluff above the lake. It would be slow going when the sand was soft & thick. I would run whenever whenever I could and walk whenever I couldn’t. 

I challenged myself to spend the day without any music, podcasts, or distractions. I wanted to be in my head and see where my thoughts took me. I got the idea to have a day of silence from listening to Colin O’Brady & his wife Jenna on the Rich Roll podcast. Google the 12-Hour Walk. I challenge you to unplug for a day and see where the thoughts in your head go. It was interesting and I did feel a bit low in the afternoon, but know how to keep pushing, which reminds me of what lows feel like in a hundred miler. Highs and lows. Just keep going. It will change. As ultrarunner Karl Meltzer said, “It never always gets worse.”

I made it 27 miles to Musskelonge State Park which was farther than I thought I would go.  I had time for more miles and am now happy to be warming up in my tent. It was wet, soggy, windy, and only in the 50s today, so this warm rest feels so good. 

It is amazing how small and vulnerable one feels when on a trail miles from nowhere in the middle of the woods without any phone service.  I didn’t see a soul on the trail all day, and I went 27 miles! I am so thankful I got through safe & healthy. I only tripped once and was fine. One falls a bit harder with a 20 pound pack on! The brim of my hat saved me from eating the dirt.  My feet are pretty much destroyed being wet all day. The legs are tired. The  blister has grown.

Tonight I will sleep easier knowing I’m not all alone in the middle of the woods miles from no one without any way to reach anyone. I’m looking forward to warmer weather tomorrow and hope for sunshine. Fingers crossed.

Day 3: Fastpacking 26 miles to the end!

Woke to a cool, foggy, wet morning and packed up my sleeping bag & mat inside the tent. Then I had to assess the blister on my left heel. It wasn’t pretty. I decided to tape it up instead of pop it because it still hurts when you pop it and I’d risk infection. (Been there and done that at Hennepin 100 last year.) So I did my best which resulted in a horrible tape job, but it was covered. Stepping on it my stride was affected a bit, but it was what it was. I had miles to cover. With my tent packed up it was time for oatmeal and coffee, and to get after it!

Since I did 27 miles yesterday, I knew I had about 26 miles left to get to my car. I had planned to spend one more night on the trail, but knew I could push through and get there today. The trail is quite rugged and I can see why it’s labeled as “difficult.” I run whenever I can, but there are also a lot of sections that are hilly (like steep up and downs), full of brush, and some areas of tall ferns where I could have used a periscope! I ate many more handfuls of blueberries along the way again today. They are all over the woods along the trail!  I also let myself enjoy music while I ran, and listened to a podcast called the KoopCast (for ultrarunners.) I always learn a ton. Pretty soon the fog receded and it turned out to be a warm, sunny, gorgeous day! The green trees and bushes were brighter and Lake Superior was a beautiful, bright blue with white waves crashing the shore.

I was constantly looking at the screenshots of maps I have on my phone of the various sections of the NCT to make sure I knew where I was. It crosses sandy, dirt roads once in awhile, but they are usually not labeled. I am so thankful to the volunteers who paint the blue blazes on the trees! They make it so easy to follow the trail. A hanful of times I got off the trail and right away noticed no blue blazes and never had to go back far to get back on the trail again. I also always watched as to where I’d be likely to get water from next and calculated my mileage. Even running next to Lake Superior I found I was often high on a wooded bluff and water access wasn’t as easy as I would have thought. 

I pretty much kept pounding out the miles and tried to ignore the growing blister. Found out when I was done I had a blister on that blister. Oh, well. I’m always reminding myself to eat & drink too so I stay on top of my hydration & calories. As I got closer to Grand Marais the trail follows the road into the little town, so I put my head down and ran. These were the fastest 2 miles of all 66 I did. It was a beautiful sight of blue water and sandy bluffs when I got to Grand Marais, and there were little shops along the short, main road. Then this guy in a truck shouts out his window at me, “Hey, it’s you! I was the guy you saw on the dirt bike. I was just telling my friend here I saw this woman running out there with a pack on!” I told him I was on mile 23 today, and he said, “Your one of those endurance athletes.” He was so funny because he was so excited like a little kid.

All along I was secretly hoping there would be an ice cream shop in Grand Marais. My wish came true! I enjoyed the heck out of that cone. With some renewed energy and knowing I had only 3 miles to go, I took off again and made my way to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  The first mile here was completely on the beach, and was the slowest, but one of the prettiest miles of the whole treck. There are so many smooth, round rocks I picked some and put them in my pack to bring home for my daughters, (though I wasn’t excited to add extra weight to my pack as my shoulders were hurting a little, but there were only a couple miles left).  I was looking forward to hugging my girls tonight and wanted to bring them something. 

Au Sable Falls is bigger than I thought it would be and so beautiful with the white water flowing over the rocks. Then it was just a mile left to my car! It was so tempting to walk as my body was so tired, but I made myself run. No need to take any longer than necessary. (Reminded me of finishing Kettle 100 a few years ago. So tired, but running anyway looking for that finish line.) When I got to the lot and saw my car it was such a welcome sight. I felt relieved that I made it there healthy and safe. Being alone in the woods and camping and running without cell service has its risks. (In hindsight it would have been smart to have a satellite device for safety. Next time.)

I feel proud and accomplished for now officially completing all of the NCT in Pictured Rocks, as well as totaling 110 miles of the NCT from Munising to Tahquamenon Falls. All of this was done over a total of 4 nights of camping. I’ve shown myself again how stubborn, driven, tough, brave, courageous, and goal-oriented I am. I try not to let fear stop me, and love new adventures, seeing new places and love exploring new trails. I always want to keep going to see what’s around the next corner.

About the Author

Laura Hoban and her husband, David, have 3 daughters. She was a teacher and after spending 14 years in her local elementary school she now homeschools her daughters. Laura loves trail running, camping, fastpacking, and traveling. She just recently completed her second 100 mile trail race.

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