Joan Young wasn't satisfied with thru-hiking all 4,000-plus miles of the North Country Scenic National Trail. Even if she did it in sections over 20 years and when it was a few hundred miles shorter. Even though she was the first woman to do it.
She is two-thirds through a second go — and in a shorter window. She began hiking Dec. 1, 2021, and is hoping to take her last step Jan. 1, 2023.
Young, 74, is traveling this time with a 13-foot Companion camper — "it's my concession to age" — to keep her off the ground and out of the weather after a day on-trail. So far, she has averaged 15 miles on foot each day. She has about 1,800 miles to finish.
The North Country Scenic National Trail (NCT) now spans about 4,800 miles and eight states from North Dakota to Vermont. It winds through parts of northern Minnesota, which is where Young is this week. The NCT is the longest of the 11 U.S. scenic trails, which also include Wisconsin's Ice Age, and the Appalachian and Continental Divide trails.
Up ahead for Young are the Kekekabic Trail, aka the Kek, which runs 39 miles and connects with the Border Route Trail up and down the ridges and above the boundary waters between Minnesota and Canada. From there, she'll tighten her laces for a southbound hike of the Superior Hiking Trail, 300-plus miles from the border to the Carlton, Minn., area, the southern trailhead and entrance to Wisconsin.
Young will work her way through Wisconsin and into Michigan and home in Scottville, just east of Ludington and the shores of Lake Michigan. That is where she began this odyssey last Dec. 1, heading east through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and on to the NCT's eastern terminus in Vermont. She then drove to North Dakota, where she hiked before landing in Minnesota.
Regardless of how she approached the hike, her celebrity as a woman of firsts and a passionate NCT advocate seems unrivaled. Her snow-white locks and smile are hard to miss, too. Part of her appeal is her popular blog (and related books), My Quality Day, said Matt Davis. She writes with flair about her experiences, far richer than the minutiae of everyday trail life like sore feet and trail chow.
"Joan is very knowledgeable about plants, animals, as well as local history," said Davis, who is the trail association's regional director for Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. "She doesn't just hike the NCT to cover miles but she strives to know about the landscape that she is hiking through and to share that knowledge with others following her hike."
Young did her first thru-hike between 1991 and 2010, knocking out miles with annual summer trips, many times with a close friend from childhood, Marie Altenau, with whom she discovered the NCT. Altenau managed 2,400 miles. Young kept going.
"I wanted to do the whole thing, which is fine," recalled Young, who spoke while planning her backpacking stretch in the Minnesota North Woods. But she seems unimpressed with "firsts" and reinforced Davis' words.
"My goal was never to do it fast," Young added. "I fell in love with the trail and spent a lot of time before and after hikes learning about local culture and history and just kind of absorbing everything this trail is about."
Young's husband, Omer, has been with her the last month, but she is backpacking the Kek and Border Route paths with two friends who came in from Michigan. Monica Hatch and her college-age daughter Keira represent a constant on the thru-hike: Friends and so-called trail angels who've come alongside Young. Literally, to hike with her sometimes weeks at a time, and, figuratively, to support. People aware of the NCT and Young's trip have allowed her to park her camper for a night or helped with resupply.
For example, another hiker of acclaim, Mary McKinley, trail name Denali, had just finished her own thru-hike of the NCT when she joined up with Young. They hiked for six weeks together in Ohio. Her friend Altenau, of Lake Katrine, N.Y., hiked with Young most of April, cooked meals, and would hike back to her vehicle daily before picking up Young and returning to her trailer.
While Young acknowledged that the logistics of coordinating such a massive undertaking have been "a headache" at times, she is undaunted.
"She has always been driven when she's got a project," added Altenau.
In addition to the wide, eager support this time around, Young said there are noticeable NCT changes on the ground. More of it is offroad than 10 to 20 years ago, a testament to the organization of people committed to the trail. Today, the association has 37 chapters and affiliates.
"I know how hard people worked to get sections offroad. I really want to see those.
"There are some really cool places that I am happy to see again … the effort involved in getting this huge of a trail offroad and keeping it maintained is phenomenal. I love being a part of that," Young said.
Fueled on peanut butter and crackers — one of her favorite trail snacks — Young sounded matter of fact about the miles to come. What are a few more states when you've already hiked several?
"My body is hanging in there," she said.