As a child, Andrea Ketchmark spent more time on the water than in the woods.
She got her first taste of hiking at Wildwood Preserve, a crown jewel of Toledo, Ohio’s, Metroparks system, but it wasn’t until she moved to Colorado for college that she discovered a love for the trails themselves.
“I loved the outdoors and realized that trails are the avenues to having the experiences I sought after,” she said. “During those years, I lived for solitude in nature and rejuvenation through exercise outside.”
Now the executive director of North Country Trail Association, the nonprofit organization that coordinates volunteer trail builders and chapters in eight states, Ketchmark joined the NCTA in 2009 as director of trail development. The North Country National Scenic Trail stretches 4,600 miles from North Dakota to Vermont and is the longest trail in the National Trails System.
With nearly 550 miles of NCT trails, Michigan has the most miles of any state, and the NCTA’s headquarters is in Lowell. Ketchmark took over as executive director in 2017 and enjoys “the challenge and excitement of leading a growing organization to meet the challenges of the future.”
Ketchmark, 43, studied natural resources recreation and tourism at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. After spending most of her 20s in Colorado, she headed east to Washington, D.C., for five years and worked at the American Hiking Society before returning to the Midwest.
“When I found that the North Country Trail goes through one of the Toledo Metroparks, my life came full circle,” she said. “I was intrigued by the idea of a trail through the upper Midwest because I spent my life thinking I had to head west to get great hiking experiences.”
Ketchmark, who has spent much of her adult life on the trail, shared a number of her insights with BLUE.
What do you enjoy most about hiking?
“I enjoy the simplicity of it. You don’t need expensive gear; just a little preparation and you are off. It’s an incredible sense of freedom to put one foot in front of the other to take you on a journey and to wonder at every turn, what is around the next bend.”
What are some of your favorite hikes?
“I’ve hiked in every state I’ve ever visited. I seek out some of the well-known destinations but also the lesser known spots where there aren’t any crowds. My favorite places have been Lory State Park in Colorado, where I spent my hours between classes during my college years; Arches National Park in Utah, where I celebrated my 25th birthday hiking with friends; the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, a father-daughter trip that I’ll never forget; and countless spots along the North Country Trail, especially here in Michigan.”
Have you done a lot of solo treks?
“Group hikes have never been my thing. It’s in solitude that I’m able to go my own pace and find the peace and quiet that lead to really restoring my body and mind.”
What prompted you to take your passion for hiking and turn it into a career?
“I joked when I first moved to Colorado that I wanted to hike for a living. And then I heard that CSU had a program in outdoor recreation and realized that maybe it was possible. That program focused on learning how people connect with the outdoors and how we as professionals can help balance both to preserve the integrity of the outdoors while allowing for the experiences that enrich our lives.”
Can you talk about your longest or most challenging hike?
“In 2015, I signed up for an event that one of our chapters runs in the Allegheny National Forest. The A-100 challenges participants to hike 25, 50 or 100 miles in a weekend. I signed up for the 50 miles and was excited to prove my hiking cred. It’s a challenging section of trail, but we also got hit with tons of rain as the event was kicking off, which made every step a muddy mess. I only made it to mile 25, a hit to my ego and my ankle that I sprained at mile 19. I was reminded on that hike to hike your own hike. Although I respect the thru-hiker and trail runner cultures, speed and distance don’t matter to me much.”
What is your favorite segment of the North Country Trail in Michigan?
“I’ve hiked some of the trail in each of our eight states, but my favorite still remains the section through Lowell. It’s beautiful and because it’s accessible, it has provided me with endless opportunities to reconnect to nature and to myself after a long work day or stressful work week.”
What is your advice for someone who wants to hike a stretch of the NCT?
“Decide what experience you want to have first — day hike, backpack, rural or urban — and then head to our website to check out our maps, hike planning guide and connect with our community on Facebook to give you advice.”
To learn more about the NCTA or plan your next hike, visit northcountrytrail.org/the-trail/plan-your-hike or join the public group North Country Trail Community on Facebook. ≈