ASHLAND, Wis. — Clearly, the man can cover ground.
Ashland’s Shane Peltonen hiked and ran 4,700 miles across eight northern states last summer, most of it on the North Country National Scenic Trail. Peltonen, 43, a former professional bicycle racer, hiked from Killington, Vt., to Lake Sakakawea State Park in North Dakota from April 10 to Oct. 30 — about 200 days.
The trail, still in the process of being finished in some sections, is more than twice as long as the Appalachian Trail, which runs about 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. When ultimately completed, the North Country Trail will be 4,600 miles long, according to the North Country Trail Association in Lowell, Mich. Peltonen hiked about 100 miles in Vermont and New York on other trails before joining the North Country Trail itself.
After previously hiking the North Country Trail across the breadth of Wisconsin and all of Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail in one trip — about 550 miles — Peltonen saw that only a handful of hikers had completed the entire North Country Trail.
“I thought it must be really hard or really stupid, or both,” he said. “But I was up for a challenge.”
The North Country Trail Association’s website lists just five people who have previously hiked the North Country National Scenic Trail end-to-end in one season — so-called “thru-hikers.” Peltonen’s name hasn’t been added yet. Sixteen hikers have hiked the trail end-to-end in a single year or by doing a section at a time over several years, said Amelia Rhodes, marketing and communications director for the association.
“There have been more people on the moon than have thru-hiked this trail,” Peltonen said.
(Twelve, if you’re counting, have walked on the moon.)
A seasoned endurance athlete, Peltonen packed light so he could run or walk the trail. He averaged about 23 miles a day with a pack that weighed from 15 to 30 pounds, depending on how much food he was carrying.
Peltonen is a master of minimalist hiking. He cooked no meals. He lived on cold cereal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and, for variety, peanut butter and honey sandwiches. He burned through six pairs of trail-running shoes. He never took a day off, and sometimes hiked and ran 15 hours a day.
In Minnesota, the North Country Trail uses the Superior Hiking Trail, the Border Route Trail and the Kekekabic Trail. The Kek, as it’s called, runs about 43 miles from near Ely to the Gunflint Trail. It’s lightly used, and, after blowdowns last summer, was nearly impassable, Peltonen said.
“When I got in there, it was unrecognizable,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to get out of there. A couple of days on the Kek, I went for 15 hours and only made four miles. I was just climbing over blowdowns. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
One difficult aspect of hiking the complete North Country Trail in one season is that it runs east to west across the northern tier of states. A hiker must start and finish the trail when overnight temperatures are near or below freezing.
At different times along his route, people he met opened their homes to Peltonen.
“Four or five people took me into their houses,” he said. “They let me take a shower. They fed me. Those were the best interactions in the world. I’ll remember them for the rest of my life.”
Peltonen has not attempted the Appalachian Trail, or America’s other two best known long-distance trails, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.
After completing the North Country Trail, he was ready to rest.
“When I was done, I said I’m just going to sit down for a long, long, long time,” Peltonen said.
But he’s already planning to do another of America’s national scenic trails, Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail.
“It’s only 1,200 miles long,” he said.