Joan Young wasn’t content with hiking all of the 4,000+ miles of the North Country Scenic National Trail. Even if she did it in sections over 20 years and if it was a few hundred kilometers shorter. Although she was the first woman to do so.
She is two-thirds through a second try – and in a shorter window. She started hiking on December 1, 2021 and hopes to take her final step on January 1, 2023.
Young, 74, is traveling this time in a 13-foot companion RV — “it’s my concession to age” — to keep her off the ground and out of the weather after a day on the trail. So far, she has walked an average of 15 miles every day. She has about 1,800 miles to go.
The North Country Scenic National Trail (NCT) now stretches approximately 4,800 miles and eight states from North Dakota to Vermont. It’s meandering through parts of northern Minnesota, where Young is this week. The NCT is the longest of the 11 scenic trails in the United States, which include the Wisconsin Ice Age, Appalachian Mountains, and Continental Divide trails.
Ahead of Young lies the Kekekabic Trail, also known as the Kek, which is 39 miles long and, with the Border Route Trail, connects the ridges up and down and over the border waters between Minnesota and Canada. From there, she’ll tighten her shoelaces for a hike south on the Superior Hiking Trail, more than 300 miles from the Carlton, Minnesota area border, the southern gateway and gateway to Wisconsin.
Young will work his way into Michigan through Wisconsin and will call Scottville, east of Ludington and the shores of Lake Michigan, home. There, last December 1, she began this odyssey that traveled east through Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and the NCT’s eastern terminus in Vermont. She then drove to North Dakota, where she hiked before ending up in Minnesota.
Regardless of how she’s approached the trek, her fame as a woman from the start and passionate NCT advocate seems unrivaled. Her snow-white locks and smile are also hard to miss. Part of her appeal is her popular blog (and related books), My Quality Day, Matt Davis said. She writes with flair about her experiences, which are far richer than the trifles of everyday trail life like sore feet and trail chow.
“Joan is very knowledgeable about plants, animals and local history,” said Davis, 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 learn about the landscape she’s trekking through and to share that knowledge with others after her trek.”
Young undertook her first thru-hike between 1991 and 2010, covering many miles on annual summer trips, often with a close childhood friend, Marie Altenau, with whom she discovered the NCT. Altenau managed 2,400 miles. Young went on.
“I wanted to do the whole thing, which is fine,” recalled Young, who spoke as she planned her backpacking trip in Minnesota’s North Woods. But she seems unfazed by “Firsts,” reinforcing Davis’ words.
“My goal was never to make it fast,” added Young. “I fell in love with the trail and spent a lot of time before and after the hikes learning about the local culture and history and just absorbing everything this trail is about.”
Young’s husband Omer was with her last month, but she’s backpacking the trails of the Kek and Border Routes with two friends who have traveled from Michigan. Monica Hatch and her college-age daughter Keira are constants on the thru-hike: friends and so-called trail angels who have accompanied Young. Literally to hike with her sometimes for weeks and figuratively to support. People who knew about the NCT and Young’s trip have allowed her to park her RV for the night or helped with resupply.
For example, Mary McKinley, another well-known hiker named Denali, had just completed her own thru-hike through the NCT when she joined Young. They hiked together in Ohio for six weeks. Her friend Altenau of Lake Katrine, NY hiked with Young for most of April, cooking meals and hiking back to her vehicle daily before picking up Young and returning to her trailer.
While Young conceded that the logistics of coordinating such a massive endeavor were sometimes “a headache,” she is undaunted.
“She’s always been driven when she has a project,” added Altenau.
In addition to the broad, eager support this time, Young said there are noticeable NCT changes on the ground. It’s more off-road than it was 10-20 years ago, a testament to the organization of people dedicated to the trail. Today the association has 37 chapters and subsidiaries.
“I know how hard people worked to get off-road sections. I really want to see these.
“There are some really cool places that I would love to go back to… the effort involved in getting this massive trail back on and maintaining it is phenomenal. I love being a part of it,” Young said.
Fueled by peanut butter and crackers — one of her favorite trail snacks — Young sounded matter-of-fact about the miles to come. What’s a few more states when you’ve already hiked several?
“My body is hanging in there,” she said.