By: Felicia Hokenstad
I remember walking through the woods as a child, finding peace among the trees. Lying in the grass, watching the clouds float away, imagining they were my troubles. When I think back, I realize that sometime between middle school and my mid-20s, I forgot about that magic. Like a typical adolescent, I spent too much time trying to fit a mold that wasn’t meant for me. It took decades to find my way back to the forest, but once I did, there was no looking back. I understood it differently as an adult, though. That is when I found the Trail.
Finding the Trail
In my late 20s, I moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I’d finally worked up the courage to leave the small rural Wisconsin town that defined me for over 20 years. My first year in the UP was filled with wanderlust as I explored various wild spaces along Lake Superior with the love of my life. The trouble came when I wanted to keep hiking and he had other plans. It takes courage to hike alone as a woman, and I hadn’t found it yet. I knew that I needed to make other hiking friends.
I logged on to Facebook and searched for local hiking groups. I stumbled on an organization called Women Who Hike (WWH), a community for women to connect on and off the Trail. After joining the WWH group for Michigan, I started making connections to others with the same dilemma. I became immersed in topics like the “10 essentials”, “leave no trace”, and … backpacking! Not too long after that, I was rounding up a group of strangers to hike overnight with me at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
On that trip, I discovered the joy in sharing wild spaces with other people. WWH asked me to continue leading day hikes and backpacking trips throughout the UP as an ambassador, and I happily accepted. These experiences helped me build confidence, skills, and friendships. I knew from that point forward, I could always lean on hiking to find community.
Giving Back to the Trail
Soon enough, the weekend warrior routine wasn’t cutting it. During my search for shorter, local day hikes, I stumbled on the blue blazes of the North Country Trail (NCT). I found these blue trail markers all over the city of Marquette. It only took one Google search to find out that it was the longest in the National Trails System at roughly 4,800 miles, spanning from North Dakota to Vermont. I was intrigued, to say the least.
Sometime around 2019 I joined the local volunteer group Marquette Area Chapter, responsible for maintaining 120 miles of the NCT through the Central Upper Peninsula of Michigan. My volunteer journey started here, helping with social media, drafting email newsletters, and leading group hikes. I recognized quickly that I was often the youngest person in the room, a problem that plagued most volunteer chapters along the NCT.
Right around that time, the North Country Trail Association (NCTA) announced a program called the Next Generation Coalition, an opportunity for young volunteers to connect along the Trail and learn more about the inner workings of the organization. Developing skills related to trail management, outreach and advocacy gave me confidence. I felt able to contribute more to the Marquette Area Chapter and decided to join their Board of Directors. I used my first experience on a board to generate the positive change they needed to recruit more “young” volunteers.
Advocating for the Trail
The deeper I got into the Trail community, the more appreciation I held for that ribbon of dirt I’d find myself walking on most weekends. By 2020, I’d completed the Hike100 Challenge a second time, exploring as much as I could in weekend-long backpacking trips. Between the NCT and WWH communities, I almost always had someone to walk with, both in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and below the Mackinac Bridge. In addition to connecting me with many new friends, the trail helped me to connect within. Miles and miles of walking had its benefits — a lot of time to think.
If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably already heard about the mental health benefits of spending time in nature. The ability to melt into the sounds of birdsong, the flow of a river and the rustling of leaves are among my favorite reasons to saunter in the woods. Hiking has a way of healing a broken heart, and it’s what helped me survive the isolation of the pandemic. It’s why I feel so passionately about equity in the outdoors. Hypothetically, we all have the same access to nature, but in reality many people lack the resources needed to feel safe on hiking trails.
Advocacy is a piece that really clicked for me, so later in 2020 I joined the NCTA’s Advocacy Committee. Through the Next Generation Coalition and Advocacy Committee, I was able to attend virtual events like the National Trails Workshop and Hike the Hill to learn from and connect with changemakers across the country. All of these experiences paved my way to an internship with the NCTA in early 2021, leading their Next Generation Coalition program.
Leading for the Trail
I knew this internship had the potential to change my life, so I accepted the challenge of managing it on top of my other full-time job. My goal was to increase engagement of young-adult volunteers across the trail, and I was given creative freedom with the program. I invited professionals from across the outdoor recreation community to lead discussions and help the group learn more about the National Trails System, leave-no-trace principles, accessibility on trails, careers with the National Park Service, and more. I brought coalition members from across the Midwest to complete a trail-building project in Northern Minnesota. And I was finally able to attend Hike the Hill, in person, in Washington, D.C.
Many of these things were happening at the same time my family moved to Southeast Minnesota. Instead of living moments away from Lake Superior, we found a home in the Mississippi River Valley. Since my husband found an excellent job, I was able to slow down for a while. And because the Trail community is how I make connections, I started searching for volunteer opportunities in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. This is how I became connected with the Border Route Trail Association (BRTA) in 2022, which quickly accepted me as their board secretary. The Border Route is a 65-mile trail in Northern Minnesota that follows the border of Minnesota and Canada. It connects to the Superior Hiking Trail in the east and the Kekekabic Trail in the west, all still part of the larger North Country Trail.
The BRTA has such a unique problem: Most of their volunteers travel six-plus hours just to get to the Trail, and much of it exists inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), where mechanized tools like mowers and chainsaws aren’t allowed. It requires a great deal of time and sweat equity to volunteer on the Border Route Trail. Some folks use their paid vacation from work to attend trail-clearing events, but many of our volunteers are retirees. And if you’ve noticed a pattern throughout my story, I saw an opportunity to help and jumped right in.
About seven months ago I was nominated as board president of the BRTA. Being a woman in leadership, in a field historically dominated by men, has its challenges. My skills and experience aren’t always taken seriously, I’m often met with surprise when I introduce myself, and I’ve experienced my fair share of toxic masculinity. On the flipside, I’ve met some wonderful people and established connections with trail organizations across the country. I have the feeling that no matter where I find myself, I’ll always have the Trail, and it’ll be the place I find community.