Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Interview with Luke Jordan AKA Strider

Luke Jordan graduated from St Cloud State University and decided to go on a 6 month long backpacking trip. For most people it would be on the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, but Luke decided to hike 4600-mile North Country Trail. You can see his photos and read his trip report from the trip on his website at This summer Luke is serving as Trail Intern for the Student Conservation Association. Let’s catch up with him on what’s happened in his life since hiking the big trail
Luke finishes his hike at Maine Junction,
perhaps it's where the NCT will meet up with the AT some day.
Photo from Luke Jordan's Website
Tman:  First of all, Luke, Congratulations on completing the North Country Trail!!!  Even though this interview is mostly about what’s happened since the hike, I’d like to go back and ask you about a critical moment on the hike.  You were struggling with snowshoeing in Minnesota in a year when the snow seemed like it would never end.  And right when you were at one of your lowest moments, you received a special phone call.  It was from Andrew Skurka. I guessing maybe Matt Davis had something to do with arranging that call.  At any rate, can you give us a glimpse of what was said during that call?

An NCT Kiosk buried in the snow, photo by Luke Jordan
Strider: Sure I can. First to give a little background into the situation, my hike started out great in North Dakota. The first four days were warm (40 degrees) sunny and the snow was almost gone. Then on the evening of the fourth day it started to snow and it continued to snow every single day until May 1st. On the fifth day of my hike I had to strap on heavy snowshoes and use them for the next five weeks as the snow just got deeper and deeper the further east I got, many times three feet deep or more. When I finally reached Minnesota and began my hike through the 160+ miles of continuous trail here I hit a roadblock in Itasca State Park. The trail disappeared into a maze of brush and blowdowns. I took off my snowshoes to navigate through this mess and I got to the other side only to find that I was at the end of a peninsula along a shoreline of a lake. This obviously was not the right way so I backtracked to the point where I first lost the trail but could not find any evidence of it. I went back to that spot this past spring and found that there is no blaze here, but a carsonite post. With snow three feet deep the post was completely buried so I had no idea where the trail went. To make matters worse, my snowshoes had frozen so I could not get them back on to find an alternate way around this lake. Without them I was post-holing well past my knees in snow and falling over a lot from losing balance. Within about twenty minutes of this I was soaking wet and concerned about hypothermia because it was getting dark fast and it was supposed to get down to about ten degrees that night. Luckily I had cell coverage and was able to call for help to get picked up for the night back at the last road crossing. After over a month of snowshoeing through deep snow, making only 12-14 miles a day compared to the 25-30 I would be making otherwise, and with my feet in considerable pain from the weight of the snowshoes I had decided I had enough. This winter was showing no signs of letting up and was only getting worse. I decided I was going to walk on roads and get back on the trail again once the snow melted a little more. The next day that’s exactly what I decided to do and I made it about 11 miles down the road until I got a phone call from Andrew Skurka. Andrew thru-hiked the trail back in the winter of 2004-2005 during his coast-to-coast hike so he knew exactly what I was going through. We spoke for about 20 minutes and he basically told me, “Just be patient. Things will eventually turn in your favor. At the end of your hike you will look back on this experience and be glad that you didn’t give up.” He convinced me to return to the trail and stick it out and that’s exactly what I did. Right after I hung up the phone I followed the road down to the next trail crossing and got back on. It turns out he was right because over the next several days we had some warmer weather and the snow finally started to melt. I was finally able to ditch the snowshoes once I got to Ely, now 11 days behind schedule because of the horrific winter conditions.

Tman's Note:
Andrew Skurka writes about the phone call here:

Tman: I’m not really sure how old Andrew Skurka was when he hiked the trail, but I’m willing to guess that you were younger than him as you hiked the trail.  That would make you somewhat of a pioneer because you would be the youngest person to hike the NCT.  You also were the first person to hike the Fort Abercrombie to Maplewood Route (developed by Tom Moberg, I was its second hiker) and you were the first NCT hiker to hike all the way to the AT in Vermont.  How does it feel to be a hiking pioneer?

Strider: Actually I can’t take credit for being a pioneer. I do believe I am the youngest to hike the NCT so far, only a year ahead of Andrew, and I was the least experienced when I started out, the previous three thru-hikers had at least one long hike under their belts, but as far as your other questions go I am definitely not a pioneer. I know that Nimblewill Nomad hiked the provisional route from Fort Abercrombie to Maplewood back in 2009. I’m not sure what route Skurka took or Ed Talone (the first thru-hiker) but I was definitely not the first, I was only the first to hike if AFTER it had been considered as an official reroute. I was however the first NCT hiker to include the proposed extension into Vermont to connect with the AT. It took four days from Crown Point to reach Maine Junction on the AT. Credit should also be given to Skurka and Nimblewill as they both hiked alternative versions of the extension during their hikes as well. 
Luke with Allan Schroden blazing and putting up signage at Maplewood State Park.
Photo from the NCT in MN facebook page

 Tman: Speaking of the Fort Abercrombie to Maplewood Route, for your internship this summer you’re working on that route. Exactly what are you doing? 


Strider: I’m working with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service working on an Optimal Location Review (OLR) for the current trail “gap” between Fort Abercrombie, ND and Maplewood State Park, MN. This section is currently a roadwalk so the point of the OLR is to identify the most optimal location for the future trail and several alternatives in case problems arise with the preferred route. Alot of the work involves researching parcel data for the two counties that make up the gap in the trail. Identifying key features like public land, scenic areas, historical sites, existing hiker facilities, existing trails, among other things are one of the first things I did. The next step is to bridge the gap between these “control points” in the most scenic, yet feasible way possible, in this case mostly on private land. That’s the next step, talking to landowners to see if we can get an easement from them to allow the trail to cross their land. The whole process is very time-consuming and at the end it needs to be presented in a physical document to be submitted to the National Park Service for final approval. I wont get into a lot of the details right now, but basically there are some problems with the original route (the trail entered Minnesota at Breckenridge, came straight east to Fergus Falls and then straight north to Maplewood) that make it no longer feasible. In the meantime the provisional route has been chosen by hikers to use until permanent off-road trail is built in the area. A lot of the original route between Maplewood and Fergus Falls however is still very feasible and there is lots of support from the community to bring the trail through the town, so I am trying to combine the original route with the provisional route in the best way possible. On top of all this I am working with a few volunteers in Fergus Falls to establish a new chapter that would bridge the area between the Laurentian Lakes Chapter and the Dakota Prairie Chapter, close to 100 miles of trail. We are making progress and hope that by the end of this year the new chapter will be official. That way if the OLR is approved we could potentially build some new trail next year around Fergus Falls.

A Facebook Cover for the Arrowhead Reroute Facebook page, created by Todd McMahon
Tman:  Since you finished your NCT hike last October, you’ve done several presentations about the hike. I was at your first presentation when you did it at the Midwest Mountaineering Outdoor Adventure Expo last November.  I thought it was a really good presentation and I liked the fact that while it was overwhelmingly positive about the NCT, you also mentioned some of the stuff you didn’t like.  What’s been some of the reactions of people who have seen your presentation

Luke's presentation at Midwest Mountaineering Outdoor Adventure Expo, Photo by Todd McMahon

Strider: The reactions to my presentations have been positive. I usually get 10 or 15 minutes of questions afterwards which shows the audience is engaged and interested in the trail or thru-hiking. In the local area I’ve had a few people show interest in joining the new chapter after hearing the presentation. The best reactions I’ve heard though are the folks that have said my experience inspired them somehow. I know the feeling, as the first three thru-hikers were inspirations to me. It’s good to know that once in awhile my experience can have a positive impact on other people.

Tman: You went to the National Scenic and Historic Trail Conference this past October. I’m trying to get some of the Heritage Chapter’s Interns to get interested in attending the conference. What can you tell them about it? (A video about the conference is located here:

Strider: It’s a great opportunity for anyone who is seriously considering a career in trails. I learned a great deal about how the trail Partnership works behind the scenes to get the National Trails on the ground and protected. It’s a chance for the current leaders in the field to get together and discuss issues facing the trails and find possible solutions. Having the “trail apprentices” there provides a different perspective in our ever changing world. It’s an opportunity to meet face-to-face with leaders currently in the business, ask questions, make contacts and then use those contacts as resources in the future. I also attended the National Scenic Trail Conference this past May and I learned even more there. A lot of the issues revolved around land acquisition and trail protection which relates directly to my job now. I would recommend it to anyone if they are given the opportunity.

Tman: Over the last year you’ve met Ed Talone, the first thru hiker of the NCT and Ron Strickland, author of a recent book about the best hikes of the NCT. In other word, you’ve been meeting some real NCT Legends. Do You have any good NCT Legend stories to pass along?

Nimblewill Nomad with Luke, photo by Luke Jordan
Strider: I’m not quite sure what you’re asking with this question. I will simply say that I was honored to have the opportunity to meet many of the NCT Greats. I met Nimblewill Nomad back in 2012 during a weekend hike on the Ice Age Trail. He was on the last day of his thru-hike and we talked for about 15 minutes. He gave me some good pointers about the NCT, and during my hike he sent me frequent emails. It was good to know that he was out there supporting me, as he is the one who initially inspired me to thru-hike the NCT. 

I first spoke to Andrew Skurka during my hike when he called me after my experience in Itasca. I had seen him give a presentation about his Alaska-Yukon Expedition at Midwest Mountaineering back in 2011 but I never got a chance to speak to him. 

I met Ed Talone in June this year after the filming of a music video showcasing the NCT volunteers. I took the trip out to Michigan with a few dedicated MN volunteers for the filming. It turns out he was hiking nearby and I had the opportunity to meet him that night at the campground, and again the next morning when we met for breakfast. It was great to hear some of his fantastic stories. 
I met Ron Strickland on the last day of my hike as I reached Maine Junction on the AT, the point that will one day be the Eastern Terminus of the NCT as soon as the Vermont extension bill gets passed in congress. He drove up from Boston for the day to meet me and left me with a parting gift, a signed copy of two of his published books. Ron is the founder of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association and the concept of the Sea-to-Sea route (C2C), the very same route that Andrew Skurka hiked in 2004-2005. I’m still in contact with him and am reading his book ‘Pathfinder’ right now. 

Tman: You’ve hiked the whole trail. You’ve been to the National Historic and Scenic Trails Conference. You’re doing an Internship about the NCT, and you’ve met some NCT Legends. With the knowledge gained from those experiences, what do you thing the NCT and the NCTA should be doing now 

Strider: The NCTA is doing a great job as far as I can see. Raising more awareness and interest in the trail will continue to be an issue for all trails in the future. I would like to make a few recommendations though. I’ve shared this idea with a few of the chapter presidents, as well as many of the staff members at headquarters; I believe a good way to generate more use of the trail is to have more Adirondack shelters. The shelter concept is something that AT hikers are familiar with and comfortable with and there are very few along the NCT until you get to PA and NY. I think that if every chapter built one shelter on their section it could be a huge step to generating more interest in the trail, and thus more use. Additionally it would make the experience that much better for thru-hikers. I never had the opportunity to stay in one until I got to Michigan and I enjoyed it. Once I got to New York there was a shelter almost every-other day and I came to really appreciate them and realized their value. I don’t think we need them, nor want them every 10 miles like the AT, but I think one shelter for every chapter would be a good investment for the trail. Another idea I had is to put up a sign at Maine Junction once the Vermont extension bill gets approved. It should have the official logos of both trails, with arrows pointing in the proper directions, and there should of course be an overview map of the NCT and maybe a highlight photograph of all 7 states. The reason for this is that by the time AT hikers reach this spot they are already thinking about what their next hike is going to be. Most choose to do the PCT, but since many don’t know the NCT even exists this would be a huge opportunity to capture that audience and maybe recruit some AT hikers to try the NCT next instead of the other trails. 
Luke's Photo of hiking the Mackinaw Bridge

Lastly, I believe it is critical for the Long Distance Hiking Committee to abolish the rule that requires thru-hikers to hike the Mackinaw Bridge. I see that there have been lots of comments about the bridge requirement for hikers. I hope this can lead to a greater discussion about this issue by the trail community in the future. I would like to present my own view on the issue. I must say that from a thru-hiker’s perspective the bridge requirement is an absolutely ridiculous idea. If a thru-hiker does a traditional linear hike across the NCT, it would be impossible to time it right to be at the Mackinaw Bridge on Labor Day. In order to hike the bridge a hiker would have to arrange transportation ahead of time, spend lots of money to get there (air, gas, hotel), and take a minimum of two days away from the hike. The North Country Trail is hard enough as it is to hike in a single season, adding another hoop to jump through is not in the best interest of the trail. Like in any business, if you attach too many inconveniences (bridge requirement) to the product (thru-hike) it will turn your customers (hikers) away. I can relate to this because when I found out that I had to hike the bridge in order for my thru-hike to count I was upset. Luckily I was living in Minnesota and it was “only” an eight hour drive to get there. I was able to go the fall before and make a long weekend out of it. The majority of the American population does not have that luxury. The vast majority of potential thru-hikers will not be able to afford to go back and complete the bridge walk. It’s just too great of a financial toll, among other things. To hike the entire 4600 mile trail and then to be denied recognition because of a stupid 5 mile chunk of freeway is not right. That brings up another point: The Bridge is an Interstate Freeway (I-75). It can NEVER be certified trail and therefore there is no reason to require folks to hike it. I don’t understand why the bridge walk was ever included as a requirement. What I do understand is that the main result of this would be to keep the list of thru-hikers small, which is NOT in the best interest of the trail. The shuttle that is provided for hikers is part of the NCT experience, expecting more is a massive turn-off. I sincerely hope this rule can be abolished, sooner rather than later.

Tman:  What’s next for you after the Internship?  You’ve put some hints on facebook that you might be hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail.  Is that the case?  And ultimately, what do you want to be doing?

Strider: That is true to a certain degree, but hiking the PNT is my “Plan B.” Plan A is stay employed in the trail community. If my current position ends and nothing else is available for the time being, I may do another hike to buy some time. There are many hikes I want to do, but ultimately jobs in the trail community are hard to come by so I am not going to pass an opportunity up.

Tman: Luke, thanks for this interview.  It’s been interesting watch your progress since I first met you when you came to my Presentation at the Midwest Mountaineering Outdoor Adventure Expo.   If there is anything you would like to add to finish the interview, please do so

Luke with some Strider Trail Mix, a gift from Brian Pavek, Photo by Todd McMahon
Strider: I would just like to add that the NCT has the potential to be the crown jewel of the National Trail System, and I would recommend it to anyone considering a thru-hike. I would also caution that attempting it without proper preparation and planning will be disastrous. It’s not like the AT where you can buy a guidebook and go on your way, it takes many hours of dedication for weeks at a time to plan everything but the reward of finishing a hike of this magnitude is phenomenal. This trail has many challenges aside from being the longest of the 11 National Scenic Trails. However it is also the most diverse which makes it truly unique among the national trails.

Tman:  Thanks again, and good luck with your future endeavors

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