Minnesota man takes unexpected route to become an avid hiker
After overcoming a painful leg disorder, Detroit Lakes man Dennis Olson is now an expert backwoods hiker and a young ambassador for the North Country Trail.
DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- When Dennis Olson was 17 years old, he faced an agonizing decision: risk getting an experimental surgery, or have his leg amputated. He needed to fix a painful syndrome called “miserable malalignment” that had plagued his childhood.
“My kneecap would pop out all the time,” he says.
Miserable malalignment syndrome is an abnormal rotation of major leg bones -- the femur, the tibia or both. The bones can be rotated inward or outward. In most cases, the cause is unknown.
Olson traces his back to the side effects of being hit by a car while biking in Dilworth when he was 7 or 8 years old.
“It was a hit and run, while I was on the way to the pool with my sister,” he says.
The condition crept up on him slowly. It typically causes knee pain, but also can cause hip, ankle and back pain. Miserable malalignment syndrome is difficult to diagnose because the legs can appear normal on X-rays.
Olson opted for the experimental surgery.
The procedure was done at the University of Minnesota Medical Center. A long steel rod was inserted into his leg and later removed. After an 18-month period of healing and physical therapy, Olson says, it was clear the surgery did what it was supposed to do: “I could go for long, long walks.”
The Detroit Lakes man has never stopped taking those long walks. Over the years, he’s grown into an expert backpack hiker, traveling all across Minnesota, along lengthy stretches of the North Country Trail.
Hazards on the trail
On the trail, Olson has come face to face with Minnesota black bears seven times, without any problems.
“I just yell and wave my arms,” he says. “They’re more scared of you than you are of them.”
Good thing, too, because he likes to travel light. That means no guns and no big knives, just a smaller knife for use on the trail.
Olson once had to walk 13 miles to the nearest road to find medical help after suffering a nasty cut from a broken bottle, but he says the only time he was really alarmed was when he had to hide in the woods for about 90 minutes from a group of men in a passing van -- they spotted him backpacking and chased him down a hiking trail near Naytahwaush.
Olson has hiked about three-quarters of the 775-mile North Country Trail through Minnesota, which he says took him about four and half weeks. He plans to hike that again this year, along with the 180 miles he hasn’t traveled yet, to hike the entire trail through the state.
It won’t take as long as one might think, since Olson averages 37 miles a day, and is working to get that up to “the mid- to low-forties.”
How far and how fast a hiker travels depends in large part on the terrain: Olson says he can travel 40 or 45 miles a day on hard ground, while soft or muddy ground “will slow you down.” His record is 53 miles in one day, road-walking in North Dakota.
When it comes to hiking, Olson doesn’t mess around: It took him just three days to complete an annual challenge by the North Country Trail Association to hike 100 miles in a year.
During hiking season, he generally wears out a pair of hiking boots in one month.
The right gear
When you’re carrying everything you need on your back, he says, you learn to pack light. Serious trail hiking means camping, and Olson sleeps in a lightweight hammock (with mosquito netting) instead of lugging along a tent. There are primitive campsites about every 7-10 miles along the North Country Trail, he says.
In the winter, he fortifies his hammock with an underquilt protected by a Gore-Tex cover, and a top quilt for warmth, which is lighter than a sleeping bag and keeps him warm: He has hiked and camped in 37-below temperatures (with 47-below wind chill).
For safety’s sake, “we don’t go way, way out there in the winter,” he says.
Winter is the only season he brings a hatchet along and builds fires. He has a thin but very warm Patagonia down jacket, and when it's really cold, he wears a military base layer, made with a special microfiber that holds heat. The only problem with that is it gets too hot, he says with a laugh.
For cooking, he uses an ultra-light, hand-made, alcohol-burning stove -- just big enough to boil water for Folgers coffee (which now comes in tea bags) or Mountain House dehydrated meals.
He carries two bottles of water, one full and one empty, and has a Sawyer mini-filter to create drinkable water out of lakes and even puddles, if necessary. It’s much better than the add-a-few-drops-of-bleach system he used when he first started hiking.
He also advises new hikers to do some research and buy the right gear the first time. When he first started, he bought a backpack and other gear that turned out to be too heavy for serious hiking.
Experienced hikers like Olson know things that newbies might not think about, like eating a few miles outside of camp, to keep the bears away, and allowing for “zero days” on hikes over 200 miles. A zero day means no hiking that day, he says: “You can use them when you’re in a really cool area and want to stay there for a while, or if you’re tired from hiking.”
In love with the North Country Trail
Olson, a welder at Minnesota Metalworks in Detroit Lakes, has hiked trails across Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, but now focuses on hiking the North Country Trail.
“I’m a North Country Trail advocate,” he says.
He’s involved with the trail association and has spoken to the Minnesota Trail Users Association about the Next Generation Coalition -- a peer to peer network of young North Country Trail supporters. Olson has been involved in NextGen since it was launched in 2018.
As an advocate, Olson is willing to get his hands dirty: Last fall, he and eight others built a 6.4-mile trail section in a day and a half.
“There were supposed to be 40 of us, but only nine showed up,” he says.
They used Pulaskis (hand tools) to scrape off anywhere from a half-inch to 5 inches of soil, shaping the new trail so it drains properly. Some types of terrain make for easier trail-building than others, Olson says: “I really like making a trail through the pine trees -- you can fly through the pine trees.”
He started out hiking solo.
“The first couple of years I was on my own,” he says. Then he started showing photos to his friends, and they got interested, too.
“You can’t drive to most waterfalls in this area,” he explains. “You have to walk there and sleep overnight.”
Some day, he’ll walk to the East Coast
As for hiking the entire length of the North Country National Scenic Trail (which stretches 4,600 miles across eight states, from Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota to Vermont) that will happen “when life works out and I can take a year off,” Olson says.
Why a year? Because it took a little over a year for the last person to hike the entire North Country Trail.
“There’s no trail in the Adirondacks,” Olson says. “You have to use GPS, and it can be 300 miles between towns.” There are areas where the trail hasn’t been built yet, and hikers have to walk on roadways: “At least a third of it is road-walking.”
In the meantime, if Olson wants to stretch his legs beyond the North Country Trail, he can just keep going: the trail hooks up with the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia, and connects to the 1,000-mile Florida Trail.
“Just think,” Olson says. “You can get all the way from North Dakota to Florida in the woods.”