I don’t go “hiking.” I have, however, been lost in the woods for several hours. You tell me the difference.

In both cases, the goal is to not die. By the end, your feet ache with every step. The feeling when you finish? Accomplishment! And a good excuse to eat something imprudent. Maybe hiking isn't so bad.

I grew up in a Northern Minnesota swamp and now live in the nearby woods. So, what one might dub “hiking” I would call “basic ambulation.” In other words, “walking.”

See, I walk five miles a day. That must count for something. In fact, I just looked up the definition of hiking and it reads: “going for long walks, especially in the country or woods.”

Never mind. I guess I’m an expert hiker. You learn something every day.

Perhaps it’s just the hiking lifestyle that prevents me from committing to the label. Expensive shoes and equipment. Sleeping in a tent that fits in your wallet. Blisters and thigh chafing. I’d rather just go for a walk.

But I think any experienced walker wonders what happens when, instead of turning around and coming home, you just keep going. I suppose that’s the fine line that, whence crossed, makes one a hiker.

To that end, hikers of all skill levels will soon have new opportunities right here in Northern Minnesota on the North Country Scenic Trail. That includes new day hikes through big towns and the deep woods. And the heartiest hikers will fine a new opportunity to trek all the way to the famed Appalachian Trail.

Currently the North Country Scenic Trail passes through the Mesabi Iron Range region in a leg called the Arrowhead Reroute. Right now, this mostly joins the path of the mixed-use Mesabi Trail footprint at Coleraine and follows it northeast.

Governed by the U.S. Parks Service, the North Country Trail will soon undergo new construction to connect with some of the nation’s most iconic hiking trails. Included will be a new more secluded and natural route for the trail near the Iron Range.

“These hiking trails provide opportunities for local families to get out into nature and have an intimate experience,” said Matthew Davis, regional trail coordinator for the North County Trail Association. “The trail is only mowed four feet wide and the trail tread, the part you walk on, is only 18 to 24 inches. So you are immersed in nature while hiking. Wildlife often use our trail as game trails and sometimes we even use deer trails for the trail route and slightly improve it.”

Following these new paths will resemble how native peoples, early French explorers, or the Merritt Brothers traversed the Range. That’s an experience that will appeal to visitors looking to get away from modern noise.

The North Country National Scenic Trail will cross 5,000 miles of North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont. When fully completed the trail will connect with the Long Trail near Middlebury, Vermont. The Long Trail runs alongside the northern portion of the Appalachian Trail.

Davis said trail usage is currently pretty low, but people are only now starting to learn about it. Here in Minnesota, Davis said the North Country Trail covers a diverse range of hiking experiences.

For instance, one can enjoy "urban hiking" on the Superior Hiking Trail in Duluth, which includes walking downtown on the Lakewalk. You can also enjoy waterfall tours in trails through state parks on the North Shore.

Hikers may enjoy wilderness hiking on the Kekekabic or Border Route trails in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. You can hike along pit lakes, tailings piles, and the scenic Prairie River north of Grand Rapids. More than 180 continuous miles of trail may be found from Highway 34 east of Detroit Lakes to Highway 6 northeast of Remer. One can cover hardwood hills at Maplewood State Park or prairie hiking near Fergus Falls.

Davis said last year 1,000 volunteers contributed 66,000 volunteer hours to add about 51 miles of new trail to the existing 3,100 miles. He said about 1,600 miles need to be completed before the North Country Trail is finished.

“It's going to take a Herculean effort to finish this but that is true of the entire North Country Trail,” said Davis. However, he said volunteers are already working on the new trails here in Northern Minnesota, stepping ever closer to the goal.

One way to find out more is to attend the Arrowhead Reroute Celebration Event from 6-8 p.m. Thursday, May 30 at the Spirit Mountain Chalet in Duluth. At noon the next day, Friday, May 31, officials will hold a ribbon-cutting at the Magney-Snively trailhead. People may then participate in a guided hike.

You can also visit the North Country Trail Association at www.northcountrytrail.org. Free maps show you how to enjoy the trail for an hour, or all summer long.

Northern Minnesota’s wild nature has long been one of its defining characteristics. As the world becomes more and more developed, the North Country Scenic Trail will take us in a different direction.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).

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