“North Country Trail offers backpackers rare solitude”
Chelsey Lewis, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published Sept. 9, 2016
I had never been so happy to see a sign of civilization.
It was ironic considering on backpacking trips my primary goal is to get away from all such signs.
A skinny, brown post stood guard at a trail junction as the sun faded behind the hardwood-covered hills to the west, my legs not far behind. After covering nearly 20 miles of hilly terrain that day it was a miracle they were moving at all — I had stopped keeping track of what hurt when it reached the everything stage.
My friend Erica Larsen and I followed a short trail spur to a worn, wooden shelter perched on a bluff above the Marengo River in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest — home for the night.
We were halfway through a 50-mile backpacking trek on the Chequamegon segment of the North Country Trail, a national scenic trail that runs 4,600 miles from North Dakota to New York. Significantly longer than its more well-known national scenic cousins, the Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles) and the Pacific Crest Trail (2,663 miles), the NCT sees far fewer hikers and backpackers than those Hollywood favorites. Despite being an official national scenic trail for 35 years, only a handful of people have ever thru-hiked it.
Thus its appeal for hikers looking for true solitude.
The trail cuts through Wisconsin’s northern corner for 200 miles from near Superior to Hurley. While that’s the shortest distance of the seven states it travels through, Wisconsin is home to the highest percentage of completed trail officially recognized by the National Park Service.
Wisconsin also lays claim to the trail’s namesake. Sixty miles of the NCT that travel through the vast national forest were previously known as the Northern Country Trail and served as inspiration for the national trail.
When Erica and I talked about doing a fall backpacking trip, the NCT immediately came to mind, with its plentiful camping options (both off trail and in shelters), numerous water sources, and a remote hiking experience largely uninterrupted by signs of civilization — namely pavement and other people. Throw in no bugs, mild temperatures and autumn’s changing leaves, and that’s a recipe for a perfect backpacking trip in Wisconsin.
The North Country Trail through Wisconsin is broken into three segments, partially built and maintained by volunteer chapters with the North Country Trail Association. The Brule-St. Croix segment begins at the Minnesota-Wisconsin border south of Superior and dips southeast, then northeast to Bayfield County Highway A south of Iron River, where the Chequamegon segment picks up and continues east to Copper Falls State Park near Mellen. From there, the Heritage segment travels east and north to the Wisconsin-Michigan border.
We had opted for a 50-mile trek from Copper Falls west to Highway 63 in Drummond, passing mostly through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
Unfortunately, heavy rains and damaging floods in July of this year closed much of the national forest and sections of the North Country Trail we hiked through. The forest service is slowly reopening the roads in the area and hopes to open sections of the trail soon.
We kicked off our trip last September on a glorious fall Wednesday, no signs of rain in the forecast for the next five days. Hints of the season’s crimsons and burnt oranges dotted trees as we drove to Highway 63 in Drummond, where we met Robert Zeilenga and his wife, Jan, volunteers with the local NCTA chapter. The couple had offered to drive us to our starting point at Copper Falls State Park, about 40 miles east by road.
We chatted with Bob and Jan about the trail, which cuts through their property on Lake Owen, and the local chapter, one of the most active in Wisconsin.
“The secret to that is Marty,” Bob said, referencing chapter president Marty Swank, who had helped facilitate our shuttle and who Bob said has poured his heart into maintaining the trail.
Indeed, much of the work that goes into building and maintaining the trail is done by volunteers like Swank and Mike Stafford, the president of the trail’s Heritage chapter — located more than 300 miles north of his home in West Allis.
Beginning Sept. 25, Stafford hopes to spend 11 days hiking 128 miles of the North Country Trail from south of Solon Springs to Copper Falls. It’s partially in celebration of the National Park Service’s centennial and the NCTA’s Hike 100 challenge, which is awarding anyone who hikes 100 miles (consecutively or in sections) of the trail this year a special patch. Stafford is welcoming anyone to join his trek and is optimistic the trail through the national forest will be open by then, but may alter his plans if it’s not. (See the group’s Meetup page at meetup.com/CheqPenHikers for more on the trip.)
Lucky for us last September, the trail was open and in prime shape. The Zeilengas dropped us at the northern end of Copper Falls, where we hiked the Doughboys’ Nature trail to catch a glimpse of Copper and Brownstone falls.
Waterfalls, gorge, ancient lava flows make Copper Falls one of Wisconsin’s most picturesque parks
The picturesque park includes 17 miles of trails, a campground (including a backpacking site along the NCT) and is worth a trip in its own right. As we hiked last year, volunteers with the NCTA’s local chapter were completing additional NCT segments in the park.
“Now the trail goes completely through, almost 9 miles of trail from one end of Copper Falls to the other end,” Stafford said, noting the group will celebrate the project at a grand opening at the park on Sept. 24.
Forty-pound packs strapped onto our backs, we followed the trail’s blue blazes south through Copper Falls and along Highway 169 before hooking up with the Mellen Hike and Bike Trail to hike into Mellen, one of two designated NCT trail towns in Wisconsin.
A quick break for lunch and foot care (Erica’s newish boots were doing a number on her heels) and we were off again, heading down Forest Road 390 and into the national forest, along a section of trail not heavily traveled, judging by the amount of overgrowth.
Even without flood damage, the rustic trail made for a more challenging hike as we tromped through thigh-high grass and over and around downed trees, soon joining up with the Penokee Mountain Ski Trail system.
An overlook there provided a glimpse of the ancient Penokees. Peaks in the range once rivaled those in the Alps, but millennia of erosion and glaciers have humbled the once grand mountains into moderate mounds. Still, the view was impressive, with fall adding pops of color on the rolling hills to the south and east.
Back on the trail, Erica peeled off her boots, which in turn had peeled off much of the back of her heels.
“I’m going to put on my Birkenstocks,” she announced. “I can’t put these boots back on.”
“You’re going to hike in sandals?” I asked.
She was. And she did — for the two more miles it took to reach our first campsite at a shelter just west of the ski trails, and the remaining 35-plus miles of our hike. Talk about a walking advertisement for the sandals.
All manner of footwear came off at our campsite, where someone had left neatly stacked firewood next to the fire ring and large pine boughs inside the roofed, three-sided cedar shelter. Full from a hot dinner cooked over a campfire, we fell asleep to the scents of Christmas as the boughs under our tent cradled our sore hips.
Over steaming cups of bitter coffee the next morning we studied the map for our day ahead. We considered scrapping our original plan of camping somewhere near Beaver Lake campground (11 miles ahead) in favor of pushing 17 miles to another shelter near the Marengo River.
With the thought of an extra day on the back end of our trip to recuperate and relax before heading back to reality in Milwaukee, we set off with high hopes of reaching the shelter.
Erica and her long-legged Birkenstocks set a comfortable pace as we wound through green and gold sugar maple and aspen (even the trees in Wisconsin are Packer fans), fallen leaves cushioning our steps.
Mid-morning we crossed paths with Jim Noble, a member of the NCTA’s Chequamegon chapter. He was on his final day of a four-day trip heading east.
“I’ve hiked this trail many times and never run into other backpackers,” he said. “On this trip, you’re the second or third I’ve seen.”
Noble was only the second backpacker we’d seen so far, and the last hiker we’d see on the trail for another two days.
Around lunchtime we crossed the scenic Brunsweiler River before rounding Lake Three and hiking a short trail spur into the lake’s campground, seemingly deserted.
It turns out it was deserted for a reason — the small, eight-site campground was among the 11% of national forest recreation areas that had been closed in 2015 due to budget cuts.
Three miles later we stopped for a water refill at Beaver Lake campground, more developed than Three Lake and a tempting spot to stop for the night. But we pushed onward, the extra 8 pounds of water on our backs making the next 6 miles a quad-burning blur of climbing and descending hills to the highest point in the Chequamegon segment.
We summoned previously unknown energy sources to climb to two lookout points of the surrounding Marengo River Valley — washed in the muted orange of the setting sun.
And then we finally reached it: the little brown sign marking the trail spur to the shelter.
Both pushed beyond exhaustion, we filled our bellies with warm food and then quickly fell asleep to the quiet rush of the Marengo River in the valley below, the brilliant twinkle of stars poking through the clearing above.
Waddling more than walking the next morning, we slackpacked (hiked without our packs) back east along the trail to a spur that led to the ruins of an early 20th-century Swedish settlement. Nature had taken back most of the settlement, concrete foundations of a barn and other buildings the only visible remnants.
Back at the shelter we re-installed our backpacks and continued down the trail, flushing half a dozen grouse as we ambled along in the early morning sun.
After crossing the Marengo River we climbed back out of the river valley to the final — and most stunning — overlook in the valley, with views in three directions of the heavily forested hills, speckled with the colors of fall.
The rest of the day brought 7 more miles of climbing and descending glacial kames and kettles before we arrived at the eastern boundary of the Porcupine Lake Wilderness, one of seven wilderness areas in Wisconsin.
Motorized activity and development are prohibited in wilderness areas, but the constant “pop, pop, pop” of gunfire from hunters echoed to the north as we navigated beaver dams serving as bridges and the fairly well-trodden trail 4 miles west to Porcupine Lake.
The lake shimmered through the trees as we reached a trail spur to an unofficial campsite on its banks. There a stone campfire ring anchored the large clearing, sheltered by towering pines. We dropped our packs and bee-lined for a chilly bath in our own private lake.
Clean and refreshed, we sat in silence on the small shore, soaking in the sun as we dried. This is what we had hiked 40 miles for — pristine wilderness all to ourselves.
That feeling of solitude would continue during our final day on the trail through the western stretch of the wilderness area. From there, the trail dipped south to hug the shore on a peninsula jutting into the 1,250-acre Lake Owen.
The lake serving as a constant companion to our left, we hiked through towering hemlock, sugar maple and red oak — one of only a handful of pockets of old-growth forest remaining in Wisconsin, protected as part of the Lake Owen Hardwoods State Natural Area.
After lunch at a lovely picnic area on the lake’s northeastern shore, we cruised the final nearly 4 miles to our car on Highway 63.
Bluegrass eased the transition back to civilization as Erica steered the car toward home and I turned my cellphone on to check directions. It buzzed with alerts of missed calls and texts, emails and news updates. I did a quick perusal, then put it away. The glowing digital screen with its endless internet black hole was one sign of civilization I wasn’t ready for quite yet.
IF YOU GO
The North Country Trail through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest from County Road D (on the eastern end of the Porcupine Lake Wilderness) east to the forest boundary at Forest Road 390 is currently closed. For updates on trail conditions, contact the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest’s Great Divide Ranger District at (715) 264-2511 or see www.fs.usda.gov/cnnf.
The trail passes through two wilderness areas — Porcupine Lake and Rainbow Lake — that are open and are particularly scenic in the fall. Both have unofficial campsites on pristine, remote lakes, but are also short enough to hike in a day.
By Wisconsin standards, the Chequamegon segment of the trail is fairly hilly. Backpackers in decent shape can count on covering 2-2.5 miles per hour; day hikers a bit more.
Camping opportunities abound along the trail through Wisconsin, from established campgrounds and designated backpacking sites to off-trail camping on national and county forest lands. Permits are not required for camping off trail on national forest land, but you must be 100 feet from the trail and any water sources.
Hunting is permitted throughout most of the national forest; wear bright clothing if you’re hiking during hunting season.
The local chapters of the North Country Trail Association can help arrange shuttles for longer trips. They also have printable maps with distances, parking, water sources and campsites. See northcountrytrail.org/wisconsin for more.