By Tim Rowland
Twenty years ago Joan Young was driving in her Midwestern neighborhood when she saw a brown sign for the North Country Trail. She had never heard of it, but being an avid hiker, decided it would be fun to add it to her list of outdoor accomplishments — not knowing at the time that this little path rambled on and on across eight states for 5,000 miles, 160 of them in the Adirondack Park.
Out for a shakedown cruise at the trail’s western terminus in North Dakota, a journalist writing a story on what is officially known as the North Country National Scenic Trail asked Young how much of the route she intended to hike and, Young said, “before I had a chance to think about it, ‘I’m going to hike the whole trail’ popped out of my mouth.”
And that’s what she did, finishing in 2010 and becoming one of about 30 people known to have hiked this lesser-known sibling of the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and seven other national long-distance hiking trails created under the auspices of the National Trails System Act of 1968.
But as Young entered her 70s, her accomplishment began to eat at her. She’d completed the route in bits and pieces, as time away from her self-described too-many-careers-to-mention would allow. She also wondered how the trail had evolved in the ensuing years. So she hitched up and hiked it again, this time completing the route — save for a bit of a winter break — in one fell 18-month swoop.
She was 72 when she started, 73 when she finished and as for any thoughts of completing a trifecta, she said, “I’ll see how I feel when I’m 83.”
Young isn’t the only amazing person associated with the trail. There are Mary and Bill Coffin, the driving forces behind the NCT section that pierces the Adirondacks; there are volunteers like David Brewer of Ohio who has accumulated 10,000 hours of trail work; there are legislative champions who have found that hacking through state bureaucracies can be every bit as challenging as flagging trail through the deepest wilderness.
By a show of hands at a welcome gathering Wednesday evening, most were visiting the Adirondacks for the first time.
“It’s exciting to bring a whole bunch of people with a love for public lands to this place,” said Julia Goren, deputy director of the Adirondack Mountain Club in her welcoming remarks. “You will all fit right in.”
They gathered, about 150 of them, in Chestertown last weekend for what has become an annual celebration of the trail, listening to inspirational stories, attending workshops, celebrating the people who have made the trail a growing success, and, of course, hiking.
The NCT was established 1980 through an amendment to the National Trails System Act. It begins west of the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail in Vermont, entering the Adirondack Park at Crown Point and exiting at Forestport before rambling through the Finger Lakes region then diving down to southern Ohio and back up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and west through Minnesota and North Dakota.
Andrea Ketchmark, executive director of the NCT Association, said that about 3,300 miles of trail have been completed with 1,700 yet to go. The gaps necessitate road hiking in places, even in the comparatively wild Adirondacks, where negotiations with private landowners and timber companies and even the state can be a time consuming part of the job. Every year another 50 miles or so are completed.
The route takes between 10 and 12 months for a thru-hiker to complete, and because of its northern bearing there is no escaping winter, as can be done on the nation’s more famous north-south trails. Ketchmark said three or four people are thru-hiking it this year.
In the park, about half of the NCT’s length is on existing trails, with 39 miles to be built and the rest in some form of negotiation with landowners. It briefly overlay’s the Adirondacks’ only other long distance trail that connects Northville and Lake Placid.
The ADK’s Goren said it was a long-distance hike in Spain that caused an abrupt career change that pivoted from medieval history to her current job. “This act of long-distance walking was life-changing for me,” she said.
She was not alone.
The first time she hiked through the park the NCT route was something of a guessing game, Young said. Multiple routes were initially proposed (one of which bypassed the Adirondacks altogether) and the final version wasn’t approved until 2015.
Distance-hiking, Young said, is important for the Adirondacks because it offers an alternative to peakbagging mentality. She has also seen firsthand how the trail has encouraged the communities through which it rambles to embrace greater appreciation of their history and their people.
Celebration participants, meanwhile, got a taste of Adirondack hiking, including some of the route that is being incorporated into the NCT, including Crown Point and the in-progress Jones Hill traverse near Schroon Lake.
On a hike of Moxham Mountain, Bob Rosati of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Onondaga Chapter, said the NCT is an inspiration that produces inspiring people.
He recalled working on the trail in May of last year in the Finger Lakes with Mary Coffin when they noticed a backpacker approaching in the distance. As the hiker drew closer, the diminutive figure with a shock of white hair was unmistakable.
It was Joan Young.