National Scenic Trail Yields Joy And Friendships

After a muddy hike on the North Country Trail, Lesley Phillip, Mary Mudge, Sue Reil and Cynthia Clemens take a break at the home of trail angel Marianne Duvendack, whose Oak Openings-area home is near the Ohio section of the NCT. PHOTO COURTESY OF MARIANNE DUVENDACK

BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Before retiring from the U.S. Postal Service, Sue Reil was out on her route in rural Michigan when she saw an older woman emerge from the woods.

“I rolled down my window and asked her if she was Grandma Goose,” said Reil, noting that the long-distance hiking legend corrected her by saying her real trail name was Mother Goose.

Inspired by Mother Goose and other women hikers she’s met on the trails and through Facebook hiking groups, Reil took the trail name Walkie Talkie and hit the trails herself, logging over 1,700 miles on the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT), plus other trails in Michigan, Ohio and beyond.

“My favorite thing about hiking is the people you meet. I’ve made some really good friends I never would have met otherwise,” Reil said. “There’s also the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of being outside for 3, 10 or 30 miles a day.”

Last month, Reil and hiker friends Cynthia Clemens, Mary Mudge and Lesley Phillip gathered around the dining table of “trail angel” Marianne Duvendack to share their experiences on the 4,800-mile NCT, which crosses eight northern states between Vermont and North Dakota. About 930 miles of that are in Ohio, following the Buckeye Trail. One leg goes through Oak Openings – near Duven-dack’s house.

“Everyone in Michigan knows Marianne,” said Clemens, referring to those who hike the NCT. 

As a trail angel, Duvendack helps arrange car shuttling for hikers like the four women, who traverse 10 or more miles a day in order to complete the trail in sections. For through hikers – those who are attempting to finish the entire trail without breaks – trail angels offer shelter and food.

For the four women, Duvendack provided a warm, dry spot to nurse their sore feet, shower and change after a day of hiking in muddy, wet conditions. All have done sections of the NCT, often in stretches of three to four days.

Mudge, who works part time for a school photography company and takes care of a man with special needs, can only take off a few days at a time, so section hiking is her only option. 

“I’ve been backpacking five or six years,” said Mudge, who has completed all of Michigan’s lower peninsula on the NCT, plus the areas around Pictured Rocks and the Mackinac Bridge for a total of about 800 miles. Clemens has completed 800 unique miles of the trail, plus doubled up on others, for a total of 1,700 miles, often completing 18 to 20 miles a day.

“Cynthia has hiked all of Michigan. I’m the only one not bound and determined to do every mile (of the trail),” said Phillip. “I go for fun.”

As the four chatted about the highlights of their trail experiences with different groups, one theme became clear: to expect the unexpected.

“Some hikes, we use a bingo card to record things that happen – someone is always losing their car keys, and one woman pitched her tent on an ant hill,” Phillip laughed. “I’ve been swarmed with mosquitoes, used grocery sacks as makeshift gaiters and slept in old leaky tents.”

The women recall times when they woke up to find caterpillar poop covering the outside of the tent, and watching two notorious tree huggers find their arms covered in caterpillar slime. The women have seen snakes, porcupines, deer and even bears.

“Make yourself look big,” advised Reil about bear encounters.

In May 2022 an EF3 tornado ripped through Gaylord, Mich.

“We were hiking west of there and we were a mile from the car when we were hit with hail the size of golf balls,” Mudge said. As the women ran to the car, the hail cracked phone screens and lacerated faces. When they crammed into the car and looked back, they saw the tornado lifting back up after 22 minutes on the ground.

Areas of the trail can be desolate and difficult, so not only do they count on good, sweat-wicking socks and hiking boots, but both paper and phone app maps, such as Far Out, which has maps showing the locations of restrooms, campgrounds and terrain.

Bringing the right food is also essential for energy. Clemens brings a bag of roasted, caramelized sweet potatoes.

“Instant carbs,” she said.

Phillip starts the day with a Carnation Instant Breakfast mixed with peanut butter powder and coffee, and she brings salads that she rehydrates for lunch. Peanut M&Ms, dried fruit and nuts make good snacks. A registered dietician who lived in Japan, Phillip also loves tofu and buys the dried version to add to instant miso. Mudge has oatmeal, bacon jerky and coffee for breakfast and snacks through the day – tuna or chicken pouches, or dehydrated pasta salad.

Reil likes beef sausage and cheese, but she’s got plenty of drink ideas as well.

“I was going to write a book on the beverages of backpacking,” she said, referring to Crystal Light with filtered Lake Superior water, vodka and a squeeze of lime.

When a trail angel isn’t available, the women might find a campground, a hotel or even sleep in the car. Sticking together with other hikers is essential for safety and companionship, but it’s also yielded friendships.

One unwritten rule about hiking with new friends is to avoid talking politics or religion, Clemens said.

“Ultimately, if you have a group of 10 people, you’re going to offend someone,” she said. “You’re out in nature. That’s what’s important. Where we live, we have the freedom to do this.”

For those interested in hiking sections of the NCT, the women recommend connecting with others through Facebook groups like Buckeye Hiker Babes, Girls Who Hike Ohio or the NCT Women’s Hike.

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