In response to the movie Wild being released, I featured some Wild Women who are going against the norm when it comes to people’s perception of what a hiker should be. The women featured are some of the most badass hikers, male or female, out there! There are so many amazing female hikers and backpackers out there that I’ve continued with the series.
Joan Young is probably a name you’ve never heard of as she is known for hiking a trail you’ve likely never heard of. Joan Young was the first woman to complete the North Country National Scenic Trail on foot. Her mileage totaled 4395 miles.
For those who haven’t heard of the North Country National Scenic Trail, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Sure! The North Country Trail is a sister trail to the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails. There are eleven National Scenic Trails in total, all authorized by Congress, which gives them this designation. The NCT was established in 1980, and it is the longest of all, at about 4600 miles. This total is estimated because there are still portions to be taken off road. End-to-end hopefuls can fill the gaps in any way that is practical, so E2E total mileages vary considerably.
The trail goes from Crown Point, New York to Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota. Recently, an extension into Vermont, to connect with the AT, has been added. “We” are waiting for Congressional approval for this to become official. The trail includes miles in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. It’s the longest hiking trail in the country, about twice as long as the Appalachian Trail.
What inspired you to begin section hiking it? Did many other people know about this trail at that time?
I discovered the NCT in 1988 while driving to Cadillac, Michigan, on M-55, at what I now know is the Udell Trailhead. I’d never heard of any NSTs except the Appalachian Trail before then. I still had kids in school at that time, but I vowed to learn more about the North Country Trail, and at least hike a little bit. There was an address for more information in White Cloud, Michigan. I sent a letter, and in return received a hand-written note from a woman who was handling all such requests at that time. There was no paid staff at all back then, and volunteers were struggling to reclaim an old school building to serve as headquarters. (This is now the popular hostel, the NCT Schoolhouse.)
Hardly anyone knew about the trail! For years it’s been called the best kept secret in trails. But that is beginning to change, as more and more people discover what the NCT has to offer.
One childhood dream was to hike the Appalachian Trail. I grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York, and knew about the AT. However, all of my adult life has been spent in Michigan, and I was delighted to find a long trail right in my own backyard. Immediately, I planned to at least sample this trail. Within a few years, I knew I wanted to hike all of it.
When did you discover your love for the outdoors? Did you have a mentor or someone you hiked with?
I have loved the outdoors my entire life. Being raised on a small farm was perfect for me. I have roamed the woods and fields since I was very small, and learned many outdoor skills through Girl Scouting, and from my father.
What advice would you give other women looking to backpack solo?
Don’t be afraid! Many women are fearful of simply being alone in unfamiliar settings. You are safer in the woods than you are crossing the street. That said, be sure you are confident in your ability to take care of yourself in anything short of a major emergency. Improve your backcountry skills whether you are a novice or experienced. Always think about safety. I don’t think women are more likely to have emergencies in the woods than men are, the issue is to be prepared to deal with small to medium crises without help.
Is there anything about backpacking that makes you nervous or anxious?
People ask me this all the time, but I am just the wrong person for this question. I’m simply not very anxious or fearful, by nature. That said, I do try to avoid camping in areas where there are a lot of other people. My worst trail experiences have been, without exception, with other humans.
What do you cherish most about hiking?
I’m not sure I even know the real answer to this question. Hiking or walking is my personal cure for everything. I do love the self-sufficiency of backpacking. Being confident in having prepared to the best of my ability, and not needing to interface with civilization for an extended period of time brings me joy.
Of course, I love being out in nature. Celebrating and praising the Creator is most meaningful to me when I’m surrounded by creation. There is something fundamental and satisfying to my soul when I am away from technology and common conveniences.
Do you have any upcoming hikes or adventures planned?
Since finishing the NCT in 2010, I’ve also completed the Finger Lakes Trail in New York. Over 300 of its miles are concurrent with the NCT, so it just made sense to finish it. I’m trying to do the same with the Buckeye Trail in Ohio, but still have over 300 miles to go on that goal. I do a little bit each year, but still have to work, so my hiking time is limited.
Now that the NCT joins Vermont’s Long Trail to meet with the AT at Maine Junction, I dream of hiking the Long Trail. The Bruce Trail in Canada appeals, as does the Great Eastern Trail. There are more trails to hike than I have years left, I’m sure!
And, I’d really like to do the North Country Trail again. So many miles have been completed or rerouted since I saw them, it would be a very different experience.
When Joan isn’t section hiking, she’s writing. You can check out all her novels (mainly outdoors based mysteries!) at Books Leaving Footprints.
Interested in reading more Wild Woman interviews? Check out all their amazing stories and Trail to Summit’s female focused articles!