In Appalachian Trials, Zach Davis’ psychological and emotional guide to successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Davis shares a number of “learned and applied strategies that enabled (him) to stay the course, both physically and emotionally” while on the trail, providing examples of how one “can prepare for when the (proverbial) shit hits the fan”. Davis’s statement “you should know that encountering obstacles is a matter of when, not if” is more profound than it is simplistic! He continues by saying “Coming to grips with this fact before you actually encounter the roadblocks is crucial to persevering, (and) a surefire way to deal with the challenges that lie ahead is simply to expect them”. Sure some of the obstacles Davis present in Chapter 7 seem synonymous with the word ‘hike’ and are to be expected – rain, cold, heat, insects, blisters, shin splints, boredom, even being homesick. Others however, like contracting Lyme Disease, West Nile Virus, or Giardia, breaking a leg, or having your pack stolen from right under your nose, are not.
One specific obstacle that Davis presents to his would-be hiker is as follows:
They could endure the rain, cold, heat, and the insects. These are all elements of the trail; they were expecting it. The sprained ankle, however, they were not prepared for. They tell their trail friends that they’re going home to rest and will rejoin the trail in a couple of weeks. They don’t return. The sprained ankle tested their resolve and they failed.
I had not sprained my ankle, but I knew with certainty that the injury to my left quad muscle was more than a simple muscle pull. What’s more, I was some 6 miles from where I camped the night before, almost 9 miles back to trail entrance on Norwich Road, and I was completely alone on the North Country Trail.
To me the process of mentally preparing for any hike, whether it be a 18.2-mile one day trip on the Paint Creek Trail from Rochester, MI to Lake Orion, MI and back, a 100-mile ten day trip on the North Country Trail in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or a 2200-mile seven month thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail through fourteen states from Georgia to Maine, should be the same. The process should be the same; however the actual preparation for each will undoubtedly be different as the non-deterministic characteristic of a 2200-mile seven month thru-hike will require you to consider many additional factors, and be much more flexible, as opposed to a 100-mile ten day hike.
Having read Zach Davis’ Appalachian Trials from cover to cover and taking his recommendations to heart, as I prepared for my 100-mile ten day trip on the North Country Trail in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I stopped to answer the following three simple statements :
I am hiking 100 miles on the North Country Trail because …
When I successfully complete hiking 100-miles on the North Country Trail, I will …
If I give up and don’t complete hiking 100-miles on the North Country Trail, I will …
Of the three statements that Davis recommends any would-be hiker consider before setting out to ramble afoot (like what I did there?), I feel the last is the most important, as it holds you accountable and directly connects consequences to your actions. Perhaps it’s because Davis actually finished thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail that he overlooks and omits the opportunity for his would-be hiker to close the loop with feedback in case of failure. In particular,
If I fail to complete hiking 100-miles on the North Country Trail, I promise to return to list:
5 successes I had while on the trail
5 mistakes I made on the trail
5 lessons I learned on the trail
5 things I will differently next time on the trail
As I struggled, both physically and mentally, while reassessing my current situation, asking myself “Do you continue to push yourself? Do you find a spot to setup camp for the night, and rest? Do you stop, turn around and hike back, knowing you’re ending your hike?”, I thought back to those statements I had written just a few weeks ago:
I am hiking 100 miles on the North Country Trail because I want to give myself the opportunity to experience a longer distance hike on a trail with terrain, conditions, and weather very similar to what I would experience on the Appalachian Trail, while shaking-down my gear to discover which items work best and will be most useful for what will become my style of hiking. Oh, and I want the 100-Mile patch from the NCTA!
When I successfully complete hiking 100-miles on the North Country Trail, I will celebrate my success (for some reason ice cream seems essential here), blog and document my adventure, add to/remove from/modify my gear based on what I experienced and learned, and continue preparing for my ultimate goal – The Hiking Triple Crown.
If I give up and don’t complete hiking 100-miles on the North Country Trail, I will celebrate my failure because I actually did something most people would never do – I tried! (nope, no ice cream for me, consequences remember?), blog and document my adventure, add to/remove from/modify my gear based on what I experienced and learned, and prepare to return to the North Country Trail to finish what I started.
It seemed as if the forty pounds strapped to my back was growing heavier with every step. Each time I had to stop to ease and relax my quad muscle, allowing the cramp to subside, it became more difficult to start again. After crossing over a familiar little stream, and slowly making my way up a hill, to my left I noticed a small clearing, complete with the remains of a fire in a pit and a number giant pieces of tree trunk, cut to be stools, arranged in a semi-circle around the fire pit. This would be a perfect spot to stop, take my pack off, give my muscles, my legs, my back, to give myself a break, as long as I needed to be able to continue, and to easily filter water from the stream to replenish both now empty Smart Water bottles.
As I peeled my pack off my back and sat it down next to one of the tree trunk stools, for some unexplainable reason I felt as if the heaviest load had been lifted from my shoulders. Acceptance? I gathered the Katadyn BeFree™ 1.0L pouch with filter, the Sawyer Squeeze water filter, the two empty 1-L Smart Water bottles and headed back down the hill to the little stream. I crossed over the stream and knelt down so I could place the water pouch just under a section of rocks and directly in the flow of the water. The pouch quickly filled, I placed the filter in the pouch, tightened the seal, and filtered the water into the first Smart Water bottle. Once the first Smart Water bottle was full, I screwed the Sawyer Squeeze onto the top of the bottle and ‘squeezed’ the water through and into the second Smart Water bottle. It probably wasn’t necessary to filter the water twice, but at this point I wasn’t taking any more chances. I repeated the process of filling the Katadyn BeFree™ 1.0L pouch and re- filling the first Smart Water bottle. I placed and secured a screw-on cap to the top of the first Smart Water bottle to remind that the water had only been filtered once, then gathered all of my belongings and headed back, over the stream and up the hill to the clearing.
It was well after 4:00 PM now, I was hot, extremely tired and honestly didn’t even notice the mosquitoes anymore, as they lined up one after the other taking their turn in the O+ blood type withdrawal line. As I sat there on the tree trunk stool, finishing the first liter of cold, refreshing water I had just filtered from the stream, and finishing the last piece of the Gatorade Green Apple Energy Chew, my only thought was that I had just over 2 miles to go.
When I made it back to the wooden bridge stretching over Mason Creek, I knew I was getting close. It wouldn’t be long now. All I had to do was fight through another half-mile or so, then I could drop my pack and poles next to road at the trail entrance, walk .9 miles to retrieve the Grand Caravan, drive back to retrieve my gear, and then figure out what to do next.
Even now, that last half-mile I spent hiking on the North Country Trail feels as if it was the toughest thing I have ever mentally done. It was certainly one of the most emotional.
Without question, I met all four of the listed qualifiers that the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as failure:
1. My body was at a state of inability to perform a normal function
2. I was experiencing an abrupt cessation of normal functioning
3. Clearly my performance was one that was exhibiting a great lack of success
4. In short, I was one that had failed
According to the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of failure is:
1. a state of inability to perform a normal function
2. an abrupt cessation of normal functioning
3. a lack of success
4. one that has failed
I’m not sure if anyone would consider hiking 100 miles on the North Country Trail “a normal function”, or even wanting to do so, normal for that matter?
With a few minor adjustments, my pack settled in and began to feel somewhat comfortable. I had broken camp, made my way back to the Trail, and was heading west. After having easily hiked roughly three miles in a just a short two hours the evening before, I was feeling a little more confident about the arduous journey before me. If all went as planned, over the next 2-3 days I would continue hiking along the NCT – stopping along the way to filter and re-supply water, eat snacks and meals as needed, and camp overnight to replenish my energy and sleep reserves – all while making my way to my half-way point, a back-pack campsite located just past the NCT Mile 50 marker and very near the Presque Isle State Campground on the shore of Lake Superior. Depending on how I felt, I would spend the following day relaxing a bit, exploring Presque Isle, portions the Porcupine Mountains, and the shores of Lake Superior. The following day I would set my sites eastward, hike the required 46.5 miles back along the North Country Trail, returning to my origin only to exit the NCT, walk back to the designated trail head parking area located on Norwich Rd in Ontonagon, place my pack and gear in the Grand Caravan, and begin the eight and half hour drive back home.
It had rained that morning, and everything was wet. I was wet. My pack was wet. The trees were wet. My trail runners and the Darn Tough wool socks protecting my feet were now soaked. The brush I was trudging through was literally dripping droplets of water. And while the trail was wet, some parts of it were just simply deceitful, innocent looking, small pools of water, under which lied a phenomenon I had never experienced.
In many blogs written and videos recorded by thru-hikers that have successfully hiked the Appalachian Trail, you will read or be told to just “embrace the suck”. Ha! Until now, I had no idea what that phrase meant, or how absolutely profound it is at describing the effect that occurs or the sound made when stepping into a puddle, under which lies a minimum of 4 – 6 inches of unseen mud. Unknowingly, you step forward placing your right foot into the puddle, and feel the ground underneath your foot slowly give way as the shoe, boot, or trail runner you’re wearing gently sinks, and as you complete your step forward with your left foot, transferring all of your body and pack weight to your right foot for support, you feel your foot sink even deeper into the abyss. Then as you continue your forward progress, you instinctively attempt to retrieve your right foot from the death grip and air-tight seal that the mud has formed around it. As you lift, prying your foot loose, the instant break in the seal along with rushing of the water lying above the mud filling the vacuum formed around your foot, make the most unique ‘whoosh-slurp-sucking’ sound I’ve ever heard. I can tell you with certainty “embrace the suck” is an understatement, and can easily see how some hikers have had to actually forego their footwear and offer their boots to the mud God. Although I came close a few times, I managed to keep my Altra LonePeak 3.5 trail runners attached securely to my feet.
With the wet terrain and soggy conditions, I was only managing to travel about a 1.5 mph. I didn’t mind the slower speed, as long as I was able to keep moving faster than the mosquitoes. In certain spots where I had to slow down, the mosquitoes seemed to attack in squadron formation – easily fifty to a hundred at a time. The Uncle Ben’s DEET Repellant, which I was so thankful I brought with me, worked great to keep them at bay, but needed to be re-applied every thirty minutes or so to stay effective. I’m not sure if it’s just more common for people with O+ blood types to be prone to mosquito bites, but even with the repellant, I felt as if I could have been a participant in the annual University of Michigan versus Ohio State University Blood Drive.
Then almost four hours into Day 2 of hiking on the North Country Trail, as I was just getting comfortable tracking the light blue blazes through the trees, and finding myself on the trail, I went up and over a small grassy and muddy embankment, partially covered in leaves. I never thought, or even imagined for a second, that as I reached the top of the embankment and started down the other side, my new Altra Lonepeak 3.5 trail runners would lose complete traction with the surface of the ground underneath them, and send my lower body unexpectedly jetting forward beneath me. According to Sir Isaac Newton’s 1st Law of Motion, which has never been proven wrong, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The equal and opposite reaction to my feet suddenly sliding out from underneath me was to fall, backwards towards the ground, with the entire weight of my pack leading the way. Do you remember our simple instinct to survive that my friend Rick Hom surmised contributed to the millions of years of evolution as a species that trigger our senses in moments unfamiliar to us? Well, I should have just let myself go, let my entire body go limp, even relax if possible and simply land wherever I fell. Instead, my ‘instinct’ kicked in and I tried to fight the fall – I tried to stop all forty pounds of weight on my back from accelerating downward, and in the end I lost. Not only did I land on the ground and in the mud, in doing so I also managed to severely pull the quad muscle in my left leg and instantly strain the muscles in my lower back.
As I laid there trying to recount what had just happened, my left quad felt as if it were on fire, and the pain shooting upwards from my lower back was stifling, literally taking my breath away. I began to assess by body – first my feet, my ankles, and my knees, no immediate injuries; then my hands, fingers, elbows and shoulders, all seemed to be normal but then again they were somewhat protected by my pack; last came my neck, and as I tilted it left and then right, I thought to myself “I’ve got to get this pack off my back”. I reached, unclipped the waist strap, then the chest strap, and carefully slid out of the Osprey Aether Ag 60 shoulder harness, left shoulder first, followed by my right. As I tried to sit up, I could feel the muscles in my lower back spasm, and was subtlety reminded that my quad muscle was just as displeased with recent events.
I leaned back to rest against the pack which I had just removed, tried to catch my breath and relax. Just like that moment when I was woke from a deep sleep the night before, I could hear my heart again, beating fast – lub, dup, lub, dup, lub, dup – as my pulse raced and my breathing became deeper. My next thoughts were “OK. You’re OK. No broken bones. No signs of blood or trauma. You’ve been pushing it. You need to just relax and give your body a little time to recover. Water!” I reached to the side pocket of my Osprey pack, grabbed my Smart Water bottle, popped the top, one gulp, two gulps, and it was empty. I closed the pop-top on the bottle, placed it between my legs, and continued to just sit there, leaning against my pack.
My mind began to replay the events of the day. I visualized the spot where I had camped the night before, the section of forest floor I passed that somehow managed to stay dry through all the rain that fell that morning, the turn at the bottom of the knoll as the trail continued along the edge of a pond, the creek from the Cranberry River I had to cross over, and the fallen pine I had to round because it blocked the trail. “How could I not have seen the steep decent of the hill I just slipped and fell on? Such a rookie mistake!”
My next mistake was thinking that if I ate a snack to boost my energy level, hydrated myself, slowed down and took it easy, I could just push through it all and continue onward. But that’s exactly what I did. After just sitting there for what easily seemed to be thirty to forty-five minutes, enjoying another Clif Bar, some beef jerky, and a few handfuls of trail mix, chased down by a half-liter of water from my second 1-liter Smart Water bottle, the pain in my lower back subsided substantially and I had managed to rub out my quad to a point that the flames now felt extinguished. I re-applied the Uncle Ben’s DEET – everywhere – put everything back in my pack, somehow managed to get the pack up and onto my back, and I was on my way.
Over the next half-mile of the trail it became more than evident that whatever I did to my left quad muscle when I slipped and fell was more than a simple muscle pull, as I was now having to shorten my stride as I stepped, stop often to ease and relax the muscle, as it randomly decided to tighten up, and although it wasn’t ‘shooting pain’, I could still feel an overall tightness in my lower back. Checking the Garmin inReach Explorer+, I was now some 6 miles from where I camped last night, and almost 9 miles back to trail entrance on Norwich Road. And I was completely alone in the Ottawa National Forest.
What do you do in this situation?
Do you continue to push yourself, push your limits, and take your physical abilities right to their edge? Knowing that in doing so, as your body fatigues even more, you increase the chance and risk of further injuring yourself?
Do you stop here, find a place to setup camp for the night, and take the rest of the day to give your body a chance to fully recover, if possible? Will a half-liter of water be enough knowing your next planned water source is three miles west on the trail?
While training, even with a much lighter pack, you know you have actually hiked 18.2 miles in under six hours. Do you stop, turn around now, and with the available daylight left, force yourself to hike back 9 miles to the trail entrance, possibly ending your entire hike? If the muscle injury in your leg is actually serious, does knowing that you could camp overnight and continue hiking back to the trail entrance the next day, closing the distance as you go and passing two water sources along the way, make the decision to do any less painful?
In the end, I would learn that everything about my EPIC FAIL! on the North Country Trail was absolutely normal, and more!
I was awake at day break, and really felt quite rested as I managed to get a good night’s sleep – in spite of being woke in the middle of the night by the crackling of a tree branch and the low, rumbling of thunder that followed. My friend Rick Hom, also an avid and much more accomplished hiker than I, would later surmise that it’s our simple instinct to survive, the millions of years of evolution as a species that trigger our senses in moments so unfamiliar to us. Perhaps buried within those millions of years of evolution, the sound of the thunder is instinctively familiar, and why it was easy to drift back to sleep afterward? Maybe hidden beneath the rush of previous day, my body was actually trying to tell me something?
I casually, well as casually as you possibly can while lying on your back in a two-person tent, changed out of my sleep wear – the Smartwool thermal bottoms and t-shirt had more than done their job, as I stayed perfectly warm and comfortable overnight in the lower 70 degree temperatures – and into my hiking shirt and shorts. I slid on my shirt and shorts, instantly reminded of how damp they still were from the day before, as I asked myself “Did this shirt really smell this bad when I took it off last night”? The fresh, dry pair of Darn Tough wool socks seemed to balance out the small chill I had and I told myself “You know you’ll warm up once you get moving”.
I was excited to be starting my second day on the North Country Trail, and based on the three miles I had covered the evening before, I was looking forward to putting in a good fifteen to twenty miles on the day. Little did I know that the trail had other plans for me?
Just as I started to eat breakfast, an Oatmeal Raisin Clif Bar, I heard it again – the crackle of thunder rolling through the trees. This time it wasn’t way off in the distance, low and rumbling, but much closer, and happening much more frequent. I knew that the weather forecast called for isolated thundershowers, but up until now, I had been fortunate enough to miss them.
No time to waste! I put on and laced my trail runners, yep, still wet and muddy from yesterday, then proceeded to quickly deflated the air mattress and pillow, tossed my sleep wear back into the dry sack, squeezed out the excess air, sealed the top, rolled it down as tight as possible, and clicked the sack closed. Next came my pack, which I retrieved from the tent and placed next to the trunk of a nearby pine tree. Breaking down the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 2 was even easier than setting it up. I carefully placed all of the stakes in their respective bag, rolled-up the fly, the tent and then the ground cover placing them all, along with the poles, back into their bag. Double-checking the area to make sure I had not overlooked anything, I then put a few snacks in the belt pocket of my pack, put the 1-liter Smart Water bottle, now ¾ full, back into my pack side pocket, and then placed the other items into my backpack. I could hear the rain coming, distant, but approaching fast. I reached into the front mesh pocket of my pack, pulled out my Outdoor Research Helium II rain jacket, and literally just finished zipping it up when the rain began to fall.
I’ve read a number of reviews and blogs that tell you regardless of how well your rain gear is rated, when you’re caught out in a storm, you’re going to get wet. What started as a simple drizzle, accompanied by the pitter patter of droplets hitting the leaves in tree tops, soon gave way to an absolute deluge of rain, pouring down with a roar. As I looked up at the sky to try and gauge the cloud cover, all I could see were small pockets of darkened clouds in between the branches of the surrounding pine trees. From out of nowhere, the quiet of the Ottawa National Forest was suddenly disrupted by a bright flash of light, I counted “One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi, Four-Mississippi, Five-Mississippi” and then came the loud boom of thunder. “Less than a mile away” I told myself, “we’re not going anywhere”, and I sat down next to my pack to keep myself as small and grounded as possible. The rain was cold now, and I reminded myself “You’ll warm up once you get moving”.
The storm may have only lasted 15 minutes, 20 minutes tops, but when you’re alone, in the woods, waiting out a thunder storm, it may as well have been an hour. It certainly felt that long, and I made sure I kept track of the time in between lighting strikes and the echo of thunder. Without a doubt the storm had passed and was now becoming more distant. Then just as spontaneous as its arrival, so was its departure. The only difference from before and after the thunderstorm was now everything was wet. I was already wet so that didn’t matter. Sure the items stored inside, safely tucked away in their dry sack, were still dry, but my pack was wet now too. And so was every inch of the trail lying in wait.
I grabbed the Garmin inReach Explorer, unlocked the screen, and sent a message to Andrew:
Good Morning! On my way from here.
Kelly Williams sent this message Sun 7/1/2018 7:46 AM from: Lat 46.681573 Lon -89.411373
Do not reply directly to this message. This message was sent to you using the inReach two-way satellite communicator with GPS. To learn more, visit http://explore.garmin.com/inreach.
I re-attached the inReach to its clip strapped to my pack, then hoisted my pack up and onto my back. With the click of the belt and chest clips, I walked the 10 yards back to the North Country Trail, turned right and continued heading West.
What is it about the unique crackling sound of a branch breaking in the woods that wakes you from a dead sleep in the middle of the night, releases unknown quantities of adrenaline into your bloodstream, and places your senses on an alert status just short of pure panic? You lie there, perfectly still in your olive green cocoon, listening ever attentively, while all you can see is pitch black – nothing but an infinite sea of darkness surrounding you.
All the while you’re waiting to hear another branch crack, an antler scrape a tree, a hoof as it impacts the ground, a grunt or snort that might help you identify the beast lurking just outside, the breathing of the bear that you can so vividly imagine walking slowly toward your tent, … something, … anything, … but all you can hear is your heart beating fiercely – lub, dup, lub, dup, lub, dup – as your pulse races on. Seconds seem like minutes, minutes seem like hours, and you’re still listening. Then there it is!
You hear it, way off in the distance, low and rumbling, as the silence is broken by another crackle, but this time it’s the crackle of thunder rolling through the trees. And for a moment everything stops with you, even the wind holds its breath, as you start to catch yours.
After a ten-hour drive traversing some 550 miles through the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan, the start of my hike on the North Country Trail began at the trail entrance on Norwich Road – located at Latitude 46.68123 and Longitude -89.38983. It was almost 6:00 PM, and knowing I had about 3.5 hours of daylight left to work with, I decided not to hike East from Norwich Road for 3.5 miles to the NCT Mile 100 Waypoint, turn around, and then hike the 3.5 miles West back to Norwich Road. Instead, I just put one foot in front of the other, and headed West on the NCT.
I managed to put in three good miles in about two and a half hours, averaging about 1.25 mph, and after deciding to stop for the evening, I found a dry, flat area about 10 yards off the trail to set up camp for the night.
I unpacked the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL 2 tent, laid out the ground cover, and staked it to the ground using four stakes and four carabiner-shock cord extensions I made to help make staking the ground cover, the tent, and the fly easier. I continued with the tent and then the fly, and in a matter of two minutes or so, my tent was completely setup and ready to call home for the evening.
Next came the Thermarest NeoAir® XLite™ air mattress, Thermarest Air Head™ Pillow, and the Sea to Summit Silk Travel Liner from my pack. After inflating the air mattress and the pillow, I placed the mattress inside the silk liner and then slid them all into the tent. With camp set up and ready for the night, I walked another 20 steps or so away from the trail, and stopped to try and empty my bladder. Honestly, the t-shirt and shorts I was wearing were so completely soaked, I was surprised I was able to go at all. Returning to camp, I pulled my dry sack with my sleep wear from my pack, along with the zip-lock bag containing my meals for Day 1 and a full Smart Water bottle, and then placed my pack all the way inside my tent, so that it would be at my feet. I flipped over, sat down, my head and body inside the tent with my feet still outside, so that I could remove my wet muddy trail runners and place them under the fly vestibule to dry, if possible. With my trail runners off, I slithered into my olive green cocoon, adjusted the zipper window on the fly to allow for a breeze to enter the tent, and then zipped the tent door closed.
I gathered my dry sleep wear and socks from the dry sack, and somehow managed to get out of my wet clothes. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty! And, I wasn’t really hungry, in fact surprisingly I wasn’t hungry at all, but I did drink almost half a liter of water. I strategically placed the water bottle next to my other belongings, and located the Garmin inReach Explorer. Unlocking the screen, I selected ‘Messages’, and sent a message to Andrew and my email account:
Camping here for the night. Good Night!
Kelly Williams sent this message Sat 6/30/2018 7:48 PM from: Lat 46.681659 Lon -89.411631
Do not reply directly to this message. This message was sent to you using the inReach two-way satellite communicator with GPS. To learn more, visit http://explore.garmin.com/inreach.
I locked the screen and placed the inReach in my chest pack, put the chest pack next to me within arm’s reach, laid back to relax a moment and I was out.