Jerry Gauld just decided to do it: Take a long (39 days) winter hike across the North Country Trail. On a cold February 1, 2006, Fife Lake bulldozer operator Jerry Gauld pulled on his worn work boots, loaded up his Kelty Redhawk 5000 pack, its straps frayed like a bushy squirrel tail, and asked his wife to drop him at the Mackinac Bridge.

From there, he snowshoed along the North Country Trail, camping in a tent at night, hellbent on trekking to the western end of the Upper Peninsula. Thirty-nine days later, he reached the Wisconsin border town of Ironwood and lived to tell the tale. Here, he shares the perspective you get only after walking 400 miles in Michigan winter wilderness.

(If you’re more of a summer hiker, check out this article about backpacking the NCT)

In his own words …

It snowed almost every day. I don’t think there was ever a night ever on the whole trip, not one night that it didn’t snow.

That’s my water can—an old bean can, a tall one. There’s a string attached to it. Why I done that: if I’m in the U.P. along the slopes, if the creeks were thawed out, the snow banks would be maybe 4 feet high and you can’t get close to them without the bank caving in, and then you’re going in. So I take this string and I can literally cast for water and fill my water jugs. I’d go through about four or five of these jugs in a day. I drank water constantly.

The way I kept my water thawed out is, at night, I slept with it. … One time I couldn’t find any water, and I had a tall Quenchers jug—jug must be 20 ounces. I filled that full of snow, and I slept with it to try to make water. I got enough to take a sip in the morning. Water is a precious issue when you’re hiking. I mean, it’s everything.

To me, cooking is a waste of water. You’re better off carrying food you don’t have to cook. That’s just the way I look at it. I mean, other people think differently, but if they went on a trip like I did, they’d soon discover. I started out with a stove and realized that it wasn’t going to be of any value.

I packed soft shell tortillas, a couple packages of them. I got pre-fried bacon ’cause that stuff is super light and I can carry a pound or two of that. It’s really got all the goodies in it to keep your energy up. I ate a ton of power bars. And I put some junk food in my pocket. I always carried some Good & Plentys with me, and cow tails. I love those things. Also cheese. Real cheese. It’s the Kraft, but it’s the real stuff, not that, what you call it, processed cheese. That way you got a lot of energy stuff there.

I carried sinew, in case I have to repair something. I can repair a snowshoe, fix my pack. I carry some baseball needles; I’ll have some of those in case you want to sew your hand back on or something (laughs).

You can’t wash your clothes, so why carry a bunch? I’d change my socks, even though they were dirty. And just keep swapping them back and forth. And I’d hang ’em off the back of my pack if it wasn’t raining or snowing, and let them air out. So I only brought a few pairs of socks. I had a jacket, my company jacket, shell cover—somewhat waterproof—fleece lining. I wore that and some long-sleeved wicking shirts. These are my work boots. I’d worn ’em all year. You want to carry a couple pair of gloves. One pair of light ones for tearing down your gear. Packing it away in the morning. But along Lake Superior I had some ski gloves. I think next time I’m going to buy some good quality mittens.

Do not, for any reason, try that trip without maps, ’cause like in the McCormick [wilderness area], it’s not marked. There are no marks on the trees, and you need a compass, and you need maps. For your own sanity. You could theoretically do the trip without maps, but just like this one area I went through, loggers had been in and cut all the trees down, and any trail was abolished. Maybe they went in there and fixed it. When I was in, there weren’t any marks.

I tried to be on the trail by daylight. Always.

I thought about everything … and of course you intentionally think about things just to keep your mind busy. I love to downhill ski, so I would see these big hills and I’d think about skiing: Hey, me and my old buddy Marv, we could backpack back in here with some fat skis. We could hike in here and ski down this hill.

I probably spent 150 miles along Lake Superior. The trail runs along a bluff. Oh man, that place, I’m telling ya. I tell you what, Lake Superior is the most unbelievable place there is. It’s just unbelievable. There’s so much ice there and ice floes, and ice upheavals, it was just beautiful, and I was captivated by it.

When I was along Lake Superior, I felt like I was a Paleo Man (laughs). It was so big, and you’re just this little dot, walking along in these giant ice upheavals, they’re big ogres. You’re the only guy there. You’re the only person. I wondered how with all the people in Michigan why no one else thought it would be fun to go up there and hike.

I always tried to find a level spot in the snow for my tent. Snow’d be anywhere from 3 to 5 feet deep. I’d leave my backpack on and take my snowshoes and walk across it. I’d pack the snow down as best as I could to the size of my tent. Then I would set my tent up and get my gear in there, and I just couldn’t wait ever to relax.

When you’re in the snow all day, you can’t sit down. Not that many places to sit down, the snow’s so deep. And the deadfalls, they had so much snow on them, there was no place to go sit down on a stump. The way I’d take a break—rest my poles ahead of me and hunch forward. So I’d take a break. Then I’d be ready to go again.

For winter camping, you want to use those self-inflating mattresses. I’m a firm believer in ’em. I’d open the valve, and it never wanted to fill up fast, it was so cold out. I’d blow my mattress until it was hard. Then I’d get on it and reach out to the valve and let out a little air. To critique it.

I was always happy to stop. Once I got in my tent I’d take my snowshoes off. Usually I just stuck them outside my tent, tucked under my rain fly. To keep them out of the weather, you don’t want to have to dig for them.

I had two thermometers, and I broke both of them. It was cold. I had a lot of mornings, and I woke up and it would be storming. One of the worst things about the trip is to get up and it’s storming out or it’s below zero or both, and you’ve got to commit yourself to getting out of the sleeping bag and packing all your gear and go. And it’s the best thing you can do. Sitting there is no good. Might as well be moving.

It takes a lotta … I don’t know what it takes. Takes an ungodly amount of will. And some kind of desire to do it that I ain’t quite figured out. I get a little bit single-minded when I get involved in something like that.

I still don’t know much about high-tech gear.
But I do know that wicking shirts are critical. I had pretty decent hiking socks, but they weren’t high quality. Next time I go, I want to get a little bit better socks.

Oh my god, my socks were wet for 120 miles. I don’t know how I could bear it. They were freezing. See, I fell through a crick, and it went over the top of my boots. My work boots. I thought, This ain’t a good deal; this just ain’t good. See, building a fire when there’s several feet of snow on the ground is a major project. All the brush and everything blown down around you has three or four feet of snow on it, too. Firewood—it might seem like it’d be all over the place—but it’s buried and it’s wet. To build a fire, to dry them out, I couldn’t do it. The best thing I could do when my socks got wet was go.

What it feels like to walk 120 miles in winter with wet socks? It’s bad, and your feet get sore. This went on for several days; 120 miles didn’t happen in one day. Every night when I went to bed, my boots were still wet—even though I have boots that are waterproof and wick. They can’t wick because they were covered in snow. Every night I went to bed and my boots would be wet and they would freeze like a block. When I got up in the morning I’d have to take the shoelaces out to get ’em on. Therefore, when I walked it would take quite a few miles, actually, to get them to limber up. So my feet would rub in there and get sore. It’s pretty miserable to walk day after day with your feet wet. It was amazing that my socks could dry out in the middle of the night. But the frozen boots, by the time the boots limbered up, the socks were wet. I never got a break on the wet socks. They’d get warm enough I could stand it after I walked a while, which is more motivation to keep moving. My feet were really bad.

What happens to the North Country Trail, especially in the wintertime, is that the trail becomes obscured. Some reason, the trail marker people would get out into a hardwood area, and they would not mark it well. You’d find a mark, then the next mark far on a hill. You had to go looking for the next marker.

You sort of get a little bit batty. I’d get an attitude: They should’ve had a mark on that tree there. I tell you what. You lose that trail, it would make you so mad. And maybe mad is a cover up for scared, but I’d get like, What the hell.

This one spot I was in I got so mad at the guy, ’cause when he marked the trail it went along a ridge down by a crick. And you’d have to cut down by the crick and then up on the bank—I was so disgusted with that guy. Cussing this guy out and he’s just trying to make an interesting hike for the average guy. But here I am, Why don’t he just stay on the ridge? Why does he want to go down to the crick?

There’s all kind of deadfalls, and deadfalls are terrible. You can’t just walk up over top of it, you’ve got to go around it. Say that tree fell on top of five feet of snow. And now there’s five feet on top, you’ve got a mountain. Deadfalls, they’ll fall and settle in the snow, but they’re a void there, you walk on that deadfall, and you’ll break through it and go down into the void. You had to go around the deadfalls, and in the swamps that is kind of dangerous.

You’d get crazy. But I talk to myself all the time anyway. I couldn’t remember the words to any songs all the way through, which drove me crazy.

I’d do a mental check with myself. I did that at night. I’d get in my sleeping bag, and I’d lie there and think, You know, okay, you only got lost once today. It’s going to happen tomorrow. I’d usually lie there and think, Boy, tomorrow I hope I don’t have any trouble on the trail.

I had trouble up around Silver Lake. There was a big storm up in there, and I had trouble there and in Tahquamenon Falls. It just snowed a lot and kept snowing. The markings on the trees weren’t high enough, and they’d get covered by snow. That’s when I literally scraped the trees looking for markers. I scraped down at my feet, looking for markers. The markings there are 6 or 7 feet in the air. But I’d have to dig down to find the mark. That was scary. I wasn’t mad at anyone for that one.

I don’t know, the trip gives you a pretty good appreciation for life. You feel really good about yourself. I know how good it made me feel to do this trip. I never ate until I got in my sleeping bag. Get in there, get it all zipped up, get my stocking cap on and I’d get in that sleeping bag only with my hands out. And I’d make my sandwiches. I’d eat them in the sleeping bag. The theory there I had, if I eat in that sleeping bag and generate all that heat from food, it’s not going anywhere but to the good. It’s trapped in the bag with me. I stoked my fire for the night when I ate. Sometimes I’d lay there with my candle, that was my fire. And I’d lay there in the sleeping bag and think about the day and think about not getting crazy and wonder if the trail was going to be there tomorrow.

It felt good to be focused just on the trail. I never really thought of turning back, but a lot of days I just didn’t feel like moving anymore! That’s when you had to get down in the old gut and say, Okay, you’re going to have to keep walking there, feller, or you’re going to run out of food. You’ve got to keep moving to a destination where you can get more grub.

You have to eat sparingly. Sometimes I’d get a little crazy with that dang trail mix—I love that stuff. Sometimes I’d eat too much of that, and I’d have to go three, four, five or six or seven or eight days without any. One time I ate a bunch of trail mix and that was when I discovered the trail map was wrong. I thought I could eat a little more; ’cause the trail was going to go by Steel City. When the trail didn’t go to Steel City, and I ate all my food up, and now I’m in the Porcupine Mountains, and I’m down to one power bar. I wasn’t going to die.

You always thought about water. One day for some reason I didn’t feel thirsty, and I didn’t drink any water that day, and I tell you what. That night I realized my feet got all scaly and uncomfortable, and I had a headache. So I never made that mistake again.

Having the poles… it’s like having four legs.

Toward the Sturgeon River I saw hundreds of deer. The deeryard was so big, I walked for two days through it. See, deer, they always yard in a conifer swamp. And they like cedar and hemlock. The deer used the trail along that deeryard. They had a deep trench, foot and a half wide, and you couldn’t get your snowshoes in the trench. You had to walk on one side of the trail in the brush.

As much as I’da liked to have a radio, I didn’t need any radio. I had a little radio in the beginning, but it took batteries and I hated carrying batteries. I did. I mean, pick up a pack of batteries (laughs). I always equate everything to food. That pack of batteries is equivalent to a sandwich.

I had a cell phone with a car charger with me. ’Cause I thought any time I do get to civilization, I’ll just con someone into letting me plug it in. Everybody was nice about it, you know. But I never could use it anyway, until clear over in the western U.P., and I actually climbed a hill that had a fire tower and a cell phone tower. I was within a hundred miles of Ironwood. Otherwise, it never worked, but it’s still a good idea to take one.

One of the most majestic places I saw was in the Trap Hills. I don’t know why they don’t call them mountains, because they’re mountains. The North Country Trail will get you on top of that mountain, and you’ll stay up there; you follow these ridges, and you can see out back to the east forever. You’ll look back over the Baraga Plains.

Snowdrifts on the bluff along Lake Superior were 10 feet high. And you couldn’t even walk on the trail. Spruce trees and balsams—young trees, the bluffs were up to the tops of them. The trail might have been blazed down below, but it was buried in snow, and you were up 10 feet high walking in the treetops.

There were giant ice floes. Big, old giant things higher than your head. It was cool.

Mother Nature is desperately trying to reclaim the North Country Trail all the time. Those guys have got a big job taking care of that trail. There were so many blowdowns along Lake Superior and so much erosion that in some of the places the trail was gone. There’d be big washout, and the trail would be gone.

Along the lake it looked like a forest of driftwood and old trees lying on the beach, the trees covered with stones from the lake churning. It looked like they macramed them on there because it was all covered in ice. You could see through the ice and see all the stones on top of the trees. It looked like somebody’s done it on purpose, but it was too big a job. You got to go up there and see. I’m telling you.

I was gone 39 days, and 34 nights I slept in my tent. You go through Grand Marais, Marquette and Munising. Most people wanted to know what I was doing. I was in Munising for about half a day. I had a prescription that needed to get refilled, and I’d been having some snowshoe troubles. I went to the hardware there and worked on my snowshoes a little bit, but I was in a bakery there and had something to eat, and then when I left the lady gave me this huge pasty, and that thing was a big one. It had rutabaga in it. It was delicious. I took that baby, and that night when I got in the old sleeping bag, I had that for my supper.

People were extremely kind, and they gave me a lot of goodies. I got a stone bear a guy give me, just a little figurine. And a bear claw. Guy gave me a cigar for when I crossed into Wisconsin, to smoke as my celebration cigar. I forgot about it. I’ve been mad at myself ever since. I got it home, and I wished I’da remembered and put it in my mouth and taken some pictures of myself at least.

I’d like to get paid to do this. I’m retired now; I could test out equipment for people. Try out a new pair of snowshoes. Go do some obscure winter trip. Spend time out in their sleeping bag. And if they wanted me to, I could cook.

I haven’t really plugged my equipment. I tell you what. And you can put anything you want about this. I got what they call an Exponent 2 tent made by Coleman. And most people think Coleman is just your basic family camping gear. Well that little Exponent 2 tent is only rated a three-season tent, and I went through some intense storms in that thing. That little tent would take the big winds. I slept really good on the snow. In that old sleeping bag, that minus 15, that was my salvation. When I got in that baby at night, life was good.

I hit a blizzard headed from Grand Marais. I had to wear a pair of ski goggles and a camp towel wrapped around my face and a hooded fleece jacket pulled way up. It was wicked.

I got to Ironwood. Ironwood news actually came out and interviewed me. My best friend whom I ski with had plans to meet me there. He came up and spent a week skiing. He came up to get me. When we finally met up in Wisconsin there, we didn’t hop in a car and head for home. I wanted to take a break. So we had something to eat and got a motel and that night I took my boots off. My buddy goes, “Jerry, I hate to tell you, but your boots are going to spend one more night outside.”

Now, Jerry Gauld is planning to hike the major islands of the Great Lakes.

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