Jane Dahlgren had never camped alone when she decided to hike solo for 296 miles. For college credits.
While the extroverted sophomore was not familiar with solo tripping, she was no novice to adventure. A Seattle native, Dahlgren had hiked with her dad and brother on the Wonderland Trail, a ninety-three-mile loop around Mt. Rainier, attended Widjiwagan YMCA camp in northern Minnesota, where for her final summer, she embarked on a five-week canoe trip to the Arctic Circle.
She heard about Northland College from a friend at Widji and visited campus her senior year of high school. “I really fell in love with the community and how friendly and welcoming the people are,” she said.
She took a gap year after high school, working at an organic farm stand on Maui then teaching winter travel and ecology to school groups in northern Minnesota.
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At Northland College, Dahlgren plays soccer, is the marketing coordinator for the Northland College Student Association, and studies chemistry and biology with an eye to nursing. Last winter, she started thinking about her options for May term, a one-month semester that provides opportunities for seminars, field experiences, independent study, internships, and off-campus and study-abroad experiences.
She was thinking off-campus and independent study. She wanted to hike the Superior Hiking Trail that follows the ridgeline overlooking Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. The south end of the trail is located just an hour from campus. Dahlgren had these goals in mind: to walk alone, reflect, write, learn the flora and fauna, and wonder.
Dahlgren met with Clayton Russell, associate professor of environmental education, outdoor education, and Native American studies, in February to create a plan. He agreed to be her advisor; she agreed to set goals and incorporate academics into the adventure.
She would hike 296 miles in twenty-one days, for an average of fourteen miles per day, journal about her experiences, and present to Russell’s classroom the following fall. In exchange, she would receive four credits.
While Russell encouraged her to train and to break in her boots, she didn’t train and she walked in her boots around campus for one day. “I would not recommend it,” she laughed.
On May first, two friends drove her to the northern most trail head just south of the Canadian border. “We were the first people to drive in for the year,” she said.
The petite nineteen-year-old loaded a fifty-pound backpack containing a hefty, hard-backed 8-1/2 x 11 journal, disposable camera, digital camera, a guide book for the Superior Hiking Trail plus gear, food, and clothing. Plus one item her mom had requested: bear spray, for protection.
There was snow on the ground and trees had not been cleared. The first night and for every night that followed, she fell asleep before dark, so she didn’t have to be alone in the dark.
The second day, she cried. “It was my most emotional day,” she said. “I’m not a crier but there was something about the trail, about being by myself, about the power of Lake Superior—I shed a lot of tears.”
In fact, the first three days were the hardest of her life but she never once thought about quitting.
She met another thru-hiker and his dog—first of the trip—and thought she had found a hiking partner, since they had similar itineraries. But, then, he quit on his fourth day. “I thought if this big, hard core guy couldn’t finish it, how was I supposed to?” she said.
She continued walking through mud and snow and over and around trees. She took only a photo a day on her disposable camera and no more than ten on her digital—and carved out spaces in her journal where the photos would go.
On her sixth day, she stopped in the town of Lutsen for her first food resupply. There, she called her mom. “Janey told me the first week had been really hard—both physically and emotionally,” Barb Gipple said. “When I asked her if she wanted to get off the trail, she said, ‘no’—it was not part of the equation. She was absolutely determined to continue and to complete the hike.”
Dahlgren left behind extra food, tore out pages she no longer needed from her guide book, bought more band aids, and kept moving.
Leaving Lutsen, she received good news. She crossed paths with the maintenance crew. “That was a relief—seeing people with chainsaws,” she said.
They told her that the trail south of Lutsen was clear, so she walked, wrote, learned the names of plants and trees, and sketched. She saw her first-ever porcupine. And the way she tells the story, you’d never know she had encountered muskox, wolves, and caribou earlier in her life.
“The porcupine is my new favorite animal,” she said.
For her second and last resupply at Gooseberry Falls, she would be meeting her aunt, who had volunteered to drive from Minneapolis.
What she didn’t know, was that her mom had flown from Seattle to Minneapolis to surprise her. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Janey,” Gipple said. “She put an immense amount of thought, preparation, and energy into the trip and I wanted to share a small part of it with her.”
Dahlgren limped from blisters on her feet plus raw skin underneath the pack straps on her back and hips, but she “looked tough and confident—and dirty,” Gipple said.
Dahlgren spent the night in a motel with her mom and aunt. She took a long, hot shower but turned down an offer to find a laundromat and wash her clothes. She wanted to remain in trail mode—clean clothes would mess with that, she said.
The next morning the three women returned to Gooseberry Falls and walked in the sunshine together for about a mile. “And then Janey continued alone for her last solo week of hiking,” Gipple said. “We waved until she vanished around a bend in the trail—it was tough to see her go.”
On her second-to-last day, she hiked twenty-six miles, landing in Duluth, pop. 86,000, a seaport city on Lake Superior. Duluth posed a problem, regarding camping since there is forty-mile section without camping.
Dahlgren had planned to stealth camp—waiting until it got dark to set up her tent in a park somewhere. But then she decided to call Russell and his wife Kathleen Adee, who live in Duluth and had offered their house as an option.
“I wasn’t feeling confident about an urban campout,” she said.
Russell and Adee picked Dahlgren and took her to out to dinner and she slept on their couch.
It was the first time Russell had seen her journal. “It was significant in two ways; first the size was unusual for backpacking trips and second, the detail and organization along with the heartfelt entries was dazzling,” Russell said. “Jane had poured her soul into this work—it will provide years of valuable insights.”
The final day was physically and emotionally tough. She had lost fifteen pounds, her feet were a blistered mess, she lost two toenails, and she was an extrovert who had done this all alone. She hiked the long final nineteen miles to southern end point—Jay Cooke State Park in Minnesota. “I walked off the trail and into the parking lot of the visitor center—I was tiny with a huge pack on, crying,” she said. “People looked at me kind of funny.”
Five months later, she stands before the students in Russell’s Northwoods Pathways course, with her four-inch thick journal. In a fast-paced, hour-long slideshow presentation—with photos from both her digital and disposable cameras —she conveys her three biggest lessons: “weight matters, Clif bars are heaven sent, and you can always walk farther than you think,” she said.