Buoy oh buoy, that's a hike! Minnesota native completes 5,000-mile trek from Key West to Northwest Angle
Richard “Skittles” Larson reached the buoy monument at Young’s Bay on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle about 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, ending a hiking trip that began in the wee hours of Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021.
NORTHWEST ANGLE, Minn. – A self-described nomad, Richard “Skittles” Larson says he was looking for the next big adventure after hiking several of the country’s renowned national hiking trails.
As big adventures go, he certainly found one on a trek he called “The Snowbird Route.”
Larson, who turned 50 in August, reached the buoy monument at Young’s Bay on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle about 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, ending a hiking trip that began in the wee hours of Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, when he set out from the buoy monument in Key West, Fla., on a journey that took him across 5,000 miles, 10 states and 40-some miles of remote Manitoba roads over the course of 314 days.
Walking at a pace of about 2.5 mph, Larson averaged about 16 miles a day, including the “zero days” when he took trail breaks and didn't hike.
“It’s always kind of funny, finishing a long hike like this – this one even more so because for 10 months, I’m constantly thinking of the next day and what’s coming up and what the next plan is,” Larson said Monday morning from Warroad, Minn., where he spent Sunday night before returning with his parents to their home in Webster, Wis. “It’s really exciting to get to the buoy, but when you’re finished, it’s almost anticlimactic, like a little bit of a letdown.
“I’m not going to be hiking every day, so now I have to change my mindset and get back into the work world a little bit and off the trail.”
Larson, who was born in Willmar, Minn., moved to New Ulm in eighth grade, graduating from high school there. He got a mass communications degree with a minor in English from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and has a resume that reflects his nomadic lifestyle.
In high school, he worked as a “stringer” sports reporter for his hometown newspaper, the New Ulm Journal. During college, he worked as a sports reporter at the Mankato Free Press.
After college, Larson got a job as a sportswriter for the Ketchikan Daily News in Alaska before returning to Minnesota and working for the Fergus Falls Daily Journal. He then returned to Alaska, working six years for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner – where his penchant for Skittles candy landed him his nickname. He worked in Ketchikan and Fairbanks on three separate occasions, respectively, and also had a stint with the Anchorage Daily News.
More recently, Larson spent nine years working for the U.S. Forest Service on a wilderness trail crew in Washington state before embarking on his trek from Key West to the Northwest Angle.
“Over the years, I’ve been somebody who will go somewhere and work and enjoy the place, but then after a year, I get these antsy feet and want to move on,” he said.
The buoy monuments at Key West and the Northwest Angle, which mark their respective locations as the southernmost and northernmost points of the contiguous U.S., were factors in the route he chose, Larson says.
“I think I just kind of felt like I wanted to do something that was unique – was uniquely my own route and plan and kind of put that together and see,” Larson said. “I would say up until the moment I left, I wasn’t sure that I was actually going to do it because it was a pretty big plan.
“I’ve been really happy with it,” he added. “I wasn’t sure I’d do it and it turned out as good or better than I could have imagined the whole journey turning out.
“It’s been just an excellent, excellent experience.”
The southern third of Larson’s journey basically followed the Eastern Continental Trail through Florida, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and into Tennessee. He then “road walked” about 140 miles through Tennessee.
In Kentucky, Larson hiked the Sheltowee Trace Trail before getting back on a 45-mile stretch of road to the North Country Trail in southern Ohio. He followed the North Country Trail – which extends from Vermont to North Dakota – all the way to Tower, Minn.
“I would say Kentucky was one of the surprising highlights for me,” Larson said. “I didn’t realize that area would be so nice, but there’s like different arches and rock formations and cliffs in that area of Kentucky that I didn’t really know existed.”
Alligators and snakes in Florida left him alone but they were still disconcerting, Larson says. Bears were a concern farther north, but they never bothered him.
Dogs gave him the biggest scare, he says. On one occasion in northern Kentucky, he was surrounded by seven dogs and lightly bitten on one of his thighs before the owner called them off.
“That was my worst animal encounter on the trail and actually, it bothered me for a while,” Larson said.
Lightening the load
On “road-hiking” portions of the trip, “slackpacking” allowed him to send much of his gear with family and friends who joined him for short stretches along the journey. That way, he only had to carry a day pack instead of the full pack with all of his camping gear, which weighed about 30 pounds.
He slept “probably 90%” of the nights in a tent.
“Some were established campsites, sometimes I’d find a tiny flat spot in the middle of the woods that would barely fit my tent and that was home for the night,” he said.
Larson says he slackpacked about 2 or 3 weeks of the trip, including the final four-day stretch from Warroad to the Northwest Angle. His parents picked him up at the end of each hiking day, returning to Warroad and then driving him back the next day to the point where he left off.
He was able to walk across the border into Manitoba – required for reaching the Angle by road – without any issues.
“Two customs officers came out and chatted with me, and I think they were kind of confused by what I was doing and why I was doing it, but they didn’t have a problem with it,” he said. “They chatted with me for a little while and let me go through, so it wasn’t a big deal at all.”
Minor celebrity status
Thanks to an article posted Friday, Sept. 30, by Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism, Larson says he felt like a minor celebrity by the time he embarked on the homestretch from Warroad to the Northwest Angle.
The article appeared in Lake of the Woods Tourism’s newsletter and was shared on numerous social media platforms.
“People kept stopping along the road and saying, ‘Are you the hiker from Florida?’” Larson said. “That was actually kind of fun and exciting because the road walk through Canada, that last stretch is a little bit boring. It was really kind of a pick-me-up to have people stopping.
“People knew what I was doing.”
Larson, who financed the trip with personal savings – “I probably spent $15,000 to $20,000,” he said – is returning to Alaska at the end of October to resume his sports writing job in Ketchikan for his fourth stint with the newspaper. The tentative plan, he says, is to work nine months of the year, which is the busiest time for covering high school sports, and then take summers off “to go hiking, exploring and kind of fill that nomadic thing.”
Ultimately, Larson says, he may write a book about the trip. He used his smartphone to keep a daily journal of the adventure, which was unique as hiking trips go.
“I think that was maybe part of the appeal for this hike, too,” he said. “This is new, this is completely different so nobody will have written about it before, so it’s probably a good opportunity to write a book about it.”
For now, though, it’s back to the real world for Skittles.
“We’ll see what happens, but I doubt this is my last adventure,” he said.
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