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Kevin Schnepf, Published September 02 2007

Trailblazer

Cows bellow, echoing for miles along Lake Ashtabula. Their footprints leave deep indentations in the mud bordering a slough.

“Watch out for the cow pies,” warns Joan Young, as she and childhood friend Marie Altenau hike an 11-mile portion of the North Country National Scenic Trail on a sunny Thursday morning.

Young, 59, and Altenau, 60, use their canes to guide themselves through thick, prairie grassland – occasionally disrupted with rocky terrain.

In the secluded countryside located about 15 miles north of Valley City, they use binoculars to spot one of the trail’s signs atop a bluff nearly 200 yards away. Ten yards in front of them, a sign is leveled to the ground.

The cows used it to scratch themselves – a reminder that this is their home.

“It is beautiful out here today … look at the view,” Young says as she looks down from the bluff at Lake Ashtabula. “I was hoping it would be clear today so Marie could see the bright blue sky and the bright blue lake.”

Young, an outdoors enthusiast from Michigan, has been here before. During the last 15 years, she has hiked 3,345 miles of the 4,600-mile trail that starts at Crown Point, N.Y., and ends at Lake Sakakawea State Park in western North Dakota.

Her goal is to experience every mile of the trail. Another goal is make people aware that such a trail even exists.

While camping in the town parks of New Rockford and Cooperstown during their recent 180-mile hike in North Dakota, Young and Altenau talked to local residents about the trail. After the hike, Young headed to Minnesota and held slide presentations in Moorhead, Park Rapids, Detroit Lakes and Pelican Rapids – where she also promoted her book “North Country Cache: Adventures on a National Scenic Trail.”

Six people attended Young’s presentation at the Moorhead Library – an indication that the trail is still a secret.

“It is so little known,” Young said. “But I really do think it’s a national treasure.”

Documenting the trail

Young grew up about 20 miles north of the North Country Trail that runs through the Finger Lakes region of New York. Altenau grew up about 30 miles south of the trail.

At age 12, they met at a 1960 girl scout camp. They have been hiking pals ever since.

“I basically do what Joan tells me,” Altenau said. “She is spectacular with maps. I get lost in a grocery store.”

It was inevitable that Young would become so passionate about the North Country Trail. She has a 1904 picture of her grandmother climbing the 5,344-foot Mount Marcy – the highest peak in New York located just off the trail.

She was one of 10,000 invited to the 1965 Senior Girl Scout roundup in Idaho. She rode a bicycle from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean in 1986.

Married, with three grown adopted boys, Young writes a monthly column entitled “Get Off the Couch” for the Ludington Daily News, located a few miles from her home in Scottville, Mich.

From her home, she designs and maintains Web sites for different businesses. Her favorite client is the North Country National Scenic Trail Association, its headquarters located 84 miles to the south in Lowell, Mich.

In 2005, her 69-chapter book on the trail was published – coinciding with the trail’s 25th anniversary.

“It nearly killed her, but she got it done,” Altenau said.

“My book is not a guide,” said Young, who started writing the chapter essays in 1995. “It’s stories. Every hike has a flavor of its own. I try to capture that and the flavor of the local history.”

Young has hiked the trail during the summer, fall, winter and spring. Some are day hikes, others are backpacking ventures in which she carries 40 pounds of supplies that will last up to six days.

She estimates her camera equipment and tape recorder account for six of those pounds –weight needed to complete her book.

Young writes about New York’s Adirondack Mountains and the rural setting of the glacially-carved Finger Lakes region.

She writes about Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Mountains and Allegheny National Forest. She writes about Ohio’s Buckeye Trail – the world’s longest loop trail.

She writes about Michigan’s Manistee National Forest, sitting in her backyard, and the 5-mile long Mackinac Bridge. She writes about Wisconsin’s Chequamegon National Forest.

She writes about the portion of the trail that opened last spring in Duluth, Minn.

“Most of the trail is forested, some rural and some urban like downtown Duluth,” said Young, who is working on a planning guide for the trail.

“But that’s a daunting task,” Young said. “The trail is so huge. It’s twice as long as the Appalachian Trail. It blows your mind thinking about putting that all together.”

Danger and beauty

Nearly 2,000 miles of the trail’s 4,600 miles have been completed. In Minnesota, 375 of the 750 trail miles are completed. In North Dakota, 214 or the 475 miles are done.

There is still a lot of road hiking – like stretches between Detroit Lakes, Minn., and the Sheyenne National Grasslands in southeast North Dakota.

For the trail to become completely certified, it must be closed to traffic, be properly marked and have organizations to maintain it. Young estimates that about 20 of 30 local trail chapters are active.

That’s why she tells hikers to plan when venturing onto the trail. There are nine national forests on the trail, which allows hikers to camp almost anywhere.

But the trail also goes through 150 different land management units, each with different rules for camping.

“You have to plan and know what the rules are,” Young said. “We also learned early on that there is no map that will be exactly correct. Get maps from at least three different sources.”

Even Young experienced trouble following the trail in Minnesota’s Lake Itasca State Park. Young, Altenau and Altenau’s son Dave were following a beautiful trail that suddenly ended into a body of water – something the map did not show.

“It was a wet year and the water level was high,” Altenau said.

They kept hiking into one little lake after the other. They started bushwacking – creating their own trail, looking for any feature like a road, a bluff or a river.

“There wasn’t anything that was going to catch us,” Young said. “We weren’t going to starve to death. But it just wasn’t very convenient.”

As a last resort, Dave manned a compass. Young counted their steps. “And I grumbled,” Altenua said.

Hidden in deep forest, the trio finally spotted blue horizon. They joked that it was either the blue sky or the local legend of Babe the Blue Ox.

“We came out at the right spot,” Young said. “Somehow, God always seems to look out for us.”

Like the time she and Altenau were camping near the McClusky Canal in central North Dakota during a patented prairie thunderstorm. The lightening strikes were so close, they decided to take down the metal poles that were holding up their tent.

But they also appreciated the beauty of such a storm – able to see where the storm starts and ends.

“That big sky … you are able to see so far,” Young said of North Dakota. “When you cross the Red River, that’s where the character of the trail changes completely.”

Her first hike in North Dakota caught Young completely by surprise. They gawked at the big sky. They admired the tall prairie grass in the Sheyenne National Grasslands waving in the wind.

“We thought we were in a western movie … it’s the Wild West,” Young said.

On their recent 15-day venture through North Dakota that started on the east edge of the Lone Tree National Wildlife Refuge near Harvey, Young and Altenau endured 100-degree heat on their first day hike.

They hiked through wet, prairie grassland during a couple days of foggy, rainy, cool weather. The heat and the dampness explains why she titles her slide presentation “High Hopes Wearing Sweaty Socks.”

“The diversity of the trail is its strength,” said Young, glancing at Lake Ashtabula – a 5,234-acre, 27-mile long body of water formed in 1944 when the nearby Bald Hill Dam was built.

“And no boats … it’s so quiet,” said Altenau, who herself has completed 1,950 miles of the trail. “It’s all these little things that I think even people in North Dakota take for granted. It’s beautiful.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549