This is the third chapter in my quest to hike the North Country Trail across Wisconsin, but logistically it probably should be the first. As I’ve explained in previous chapters, the Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota and the North Country Trail in Wisconsin aren’t properly connected yet at the border. The best thing a purist can do to fill the gap is hike on Minnesota State Highway 23 and a pair of county roads to get to a trailhead. So that’s what I did. Because I’m an annoying purist. Sort of.
It’s not so much that I’m determined to be annoying and pure. There are basically three reasons I wanted to hike on the roadways. 1) I know from experience that having a somewhat methodical goal inspires me to stay active. 2) If the pieces don’t all connect, it’s easy to lose track of where I’m at in the process, thereby thwarting reason #1. 3) Hiking on a trail in May is less fun anyway because of mud and ticks, so roads might be the best option anyway. (And if I were a true purist I’d strap on a backpack and hike across the whole state in a few days instead of breaking it up into numerous easy hikes.)
With all that in mind I parked my car on the side of Highway 23 near the Wild Valley Road sign and set out to connect my Superior Hiking Trail adventures to my fall 2018 North Country Trail hike at Nemadji River Valley.
There are really only two things that make hiking on a road worse than hiking on a trail. The most obvious one is automobile traffic — in this case high-speed vehicles that can kill me even if I’m alert. But the odds are very much against that. The other thing to deal with is there is a lot more garbage on the side of highways than on trails. A lot more. It’s not even close to comparable.
When hiking a wilderness trail or even an inter-city trail in Minnesota or Wisconsin, you’ll probably see about three pieces of garbage every mile, but you might not see any. On Minnesota Highway 23 there wasn’t a single moment during my hike where there wasn’t a plastic bottle or wrapper in my sight. There is probably less ditch refuse in the summer, after volunteers come through and clean it up, but in the spring it’s remarkable. Near the end of my hike I recorded a three-minute audio clip of myself describing each piece of garbage as I walked along, simply to illustrate that litter was in view every step of the way. You can listen to it below, or don’t even bother because you can imagine.
But if you look up over the waste products there are forests and farms, wildlife and livestock. Walking on roads is fun.
The total hike from Wild Valley Road to the start of the North Country Trail is about six miles, which means there and back is about 12 miles. I hadn’t done that math in advance, so I started my hike thinking I might do the whole thing at once. When I made it to Carlton County Road 4 / Military Road I realized it would be better to break this section up into two hikes. So I turned around and headed back to the car.
On the way back I saw a critter emerging from the woods and moving toward the road. It was a porcupine. I stopped about 50 feet away and watched as it made its way to the blacktop and then paused there. I took out my phone and decided to shoot a video, because I’m an essayist who has to document things for the internet instead of just enjoy them.
At that moment the porcupine started tromping down the road, following the white line, moving straight in my direction. And it just kept coming. Soon it was about five feet in front of me. Then it stopped and looked up. I couldn’t tell if it was approaching me on purpose or if it didn’t know I was there. When it stopped there was a brief staredown, which I broke to flip up my sunglasses to make sure I was actually recording, and it turned out I was in photo mode and hadn’t shot any video yet. So then I switched to video and started recording as the porcupine decided to walk away from me and cross the road. I kept the camera going until I heard a car coming in the distance and needed to put away my phone and make sure the driver was aware of our little buddy. The 19-second video is below. It ends with porky in the middle of the road, but don’t worry, the highway crossing was successful. The driver slowed down and we exchanged thumbs up and OK gestures.
On the drive back home I felt something under my shirt, crawling up my forearm. Yes, I had picked up a wood tick while hiking on blacktop. At least it turned out to be one instead of the six trillion I’d have accumulated if I ventured through grass.
Two days later I drove out to where I had left off on the quest. Military Road serves as Carlton County Road 4 and Douglas County Roads C and W. It had far less garbage on it than Highway 23. I saw some sort of wild turkey from a great distance; it was far less interested in me than the porcupine had been and carefully retreated into the woods. There was a cattle farm along the way. Enbridge energy company workers were messing around with a natural gas line. The sky was mostly clear and the sun was hot.
When I came to where roads W and C split in two directions it occurred to me someone should build a public restroom there. “Water Closet Junction.”
Of the two hikes, the second turned out to be a bit longer than the first. Wild Valley Road to Military Road and back takes about an hour and a half for a lollygagger. Military Road to the trailhead and back takes nearly three hours.
The gravel Soo LIne Trail passes under a railroad bridge and serves as an entry point to the North Country Trail, but it’s often flooded out at a spot just a couple hundred feet in. That’s what I found when I hiked from the other direction last fall, and that’s what I found this year heading southwest. So I guess that means I have to come back some day when it’s finally dry and hike the 100-or-so-foot section I keep missing. That’s what annoying purists do when they aren’t wearing waterproof boots.
On my way back the skies filled with clouds, the wind picked up and a trickle of precipitation fell. I saw some skeletal remains in the ditch and reminded myself to be watchful for vehicles and lightning.
When I made it back to my car I unlocked the door, sat down, and watched as the rain suddenly came pouring down as if it had been waiting for me to find shelter.
And that’s basically the end of the story, except for the obvious postscript to note that two hours later I heard my wife’s voice shout, “why is there a tick on the bathroom hand towel?”
“Because that’s how I seduce you,” is how I didn’t answer.
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