Friday, July 02, 2010

North Country Trail Journal - June 15, 2010

Today was one big adventure, but one not to be repeated. I’ve learned that some of the worst trail experiences make the best stories, but before I get to that, let me get up to speed…

After we left our cool break spot on the driveway of someone’s weekend retreat, we continued south down desolate county highway A. Time passed as we talked and I sang songs. Steve said one of his teachers loves The Proclaimers, the Scottish artists who sang “I Would Walk 5,000 miles. Steve brightened when I told him I saw these guys being interviewed once and, in addition to looking like twin Buddy Hollys, their brogues were nearly indecipherable. Steve said his teacher brought that up as well.

Just before we turned onto Jackson Box Trail, a car pulled alongside and the passenger, a young man with rotten teeth and the word “Peace” tattooed on his neck, offered to feed us. Although a woman drove and a young child was in the backseat, I got a bad vibe from the guy, which is probably not fair on my part. I told him we had too much food, which is the truth. He said he’d done the Bear Grease and other long-distance dog sled races, and knows what we are going through.

Jackson Box Trail is a desolate dirt road, used mainly by hunters and ATV enthusiasts. We stopped after a couple miles on a grassy spot right next to the road. Steve said he’s got shin splints on his left foot and is favoring it a bit. Road walking can be hard on the dogs.

A thunderstorm rolled in early this morning. I woke as it began and listened to it build and recede. The seam seal job I did on the Tarptent worked wonderfully. I felt nary a drop. There’s nothing I can do about condensation inside the tent except stop breathing. This same technique repels mosquitoes as well.

We packed up in a break in the rain and resumed walking. The woods around us are thick with young trees, virtually impenetrable. A person could easily get lost in these thickets. Mosquitoes were horrible. The map shows us going right through the middle of Empire Swamp. DEET needed to be applied frequently as it was washed away by the rain.

We finally reached County Highway M and rejoiced! This is the last leg of the road walk. Soon we will be following the blue blazes of the North Country Trail. My plan was to join the trail at Stuckey Road, but as we passed by Harter Road, I saw blue blazes on the trees and vaguely remembered reading about this road on the North Country Trail Alliance web site. We followed the blue blazes until we came to a carsonite post -- the NCT! It said “temporary connector,” and here’s where we made our big mistake.

I don’t have a map for this section. The NCTA doesn’t publish one. We relied on the blue blazes to steer us in the right direction. We took “thumbs up” pictures at the sign and resumed hiking. The trail started out very nicely, with a boardwalk over a bog and newly-constructed bridge over a creek. But then the blue blazes are replaced by yellow tape and we walked through knee-deep muck and water. I know from trail work on the Ice Age Trail and hiking the Arizona Trail, that tape signifies the trail is under construction, I just hoped it would lead us somewhere. And it did.

When we weren’t trudging through a swamp, in the muck and up and over exposed roots, the trail took us to dry islands where ancient pines and junipers soared majestically skyward. They were spared the sawyer’s axe, no doubt, by the difficulty of the surrounding terrain. We took a long oatmeal break in an old stand. The moss, huge trunks, and ever-present ferns gave a very pre-historic feeling to the place.

And as we continued, the trail became harder to follow and more overgrown. Flat shale rocks tipped over with every step, some crashing onto my toes. Exposed roots tried to trip me up, and branches grabbed and prodded at my now-bulky external-frame pack. But I still held hope that this soon-to-be trail would lead to a road or established trail.

Alas, it was not to be. The pink tape turned to orange tape and then disappeared altogether. I had Steve wait at the last marker while I walked in a circle looking for the next one. I found one and called out to Steve. He said, “That’s the way we came.” Doh! After a couple passes, no new marker could be found. We had two choices -- continue to bushwack until we came to a road or backtrack. As we stood there deciding what to do, another thunderstorm rolled in and skies opened up with the mother of all deluges. I got out the compass and consulted the map. It looks like we hiked south until we met the St. Croix flowage. It looked like a wide, powerful river from the “trail.” But shortly before the tape ended, thank goodness, the “trail” was going southwest. We decided to backtrack. We could have bushwacked east to make progress, but would have had to deal with at least two creek crossings.

Once, the flags we were following led to a deer stand and stopped. We had to backtrack again until we found a familiar landmark. Because of the cloudburst, all the water we walked through was a little higher on the return trip. Steve was worried, but he never lost his cool. I reassured him we had plenty of food and water, and shelter if we needed it. He kept a quick pace, though, on the backtrack, and I grew winded trying to keep up with him. We made it back to Harter Road and took “thumbs down” pictures at the same sign we’d been so happy to see hours earlier.

We backtracked to a pine grove just off Hwy. M and, loopy and exhausted, set up our tents, ate dinner, and called it a night.

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