5,000 Mile Hike to the NW Angle Restores Faith in America
Skittles, otherwise known as Richard Larson, is on a journey. This journey began at 5am on November 23rd, 2021, as he began his hike from the southernmost point of the contiguous United States to the northernmost point. Key West, FL all the way to Angle Inlet, MN, walking the entire way. In coming days, his mission will be complete.
“I plan on reaching the northernmost buoy by maybe Sunday night or possibly Monday. It really depends upon how far I hike tomorrow,” explains Skittles who has just met up with his parents who made the trip over from northern Wisconsin. “My hope is to get in 20 miles tomorrow, which should set me up for reaching the buoy Sunday evening, but we will see.”
Skittles explained that the rest of the way he will be slackpacking as he crosses the border into Canada. To travel via land to the NW Angle, travelers must travel about 40 miles through Canada, and then re-enter the United States up at the NW Angle.
What is slackpacking you ask? “As my parents are here for the rest of my journey, I basically can shed some of my gear and simply use a backpack with necessary supplies for the day. A bit of food, some water, etc. I do not need sleeping gear as I will mark my stopping point, go with them for the night, have dinner, sleep in a hotel, and then return the next day to begin where I left off.”
Slackpacking is not how most of the journey has gone. Sleeping in the middle of the wilderness in a small tent by himself has been the norm. “Back in 2004 when I did my first longer distance hike on the Appalachian Trail, I had a hard time sleeping. You would hear wildlife around you at night and I did not sleep well. You just get used to it.”
“In the last two weeks, I have had at least two large animals near my tent at night. I yelled, and they ran away. With only black bears and no grizzlies in the area combined with the fact they are hunted, they are afraid of humans. Once they realize who you are, they do not stick around.”
Skittles seemed relaxed about hiking through the wilderness and sleeping under the stars at this point in his life with his experience. There was one stretch, in Florida, though, that he felt just a bit uneasy.
“When I began, the stretch from Key West to the Everglades was a combo of bike trails and walking trails which led me to the start of the Florida trail. That trail begins in the everglades and continues to the panhandle. Through the Big Cypress swamp, I had to wade through knee to thigh deep water with snakes and alligators for about 30 miles. It was good I did this stretch in the winter months as the snakes are less active.”
I was curious in a swamp where he could set up camp and sleep. “There are some small islands with pine trees you can climb up and camp. Camping close to the water near alligators was a bit scary. You do not want to fill up with water at dusk or dawn.”
“Alligators are afraid of humans and normally do not bother you, but you do not want mistakes. At times when hiking through, I was within 10 feet with them sunning themselves. When they see you, they normally slide into the water to get away. There was about a 14-footer I saw near Orlando. I would not probably hike at night or during the non-winter on this stretch.”
As I spoke to Skittles, I was envious. Like many, being “chained” to my home office, getting work done on the computer and smartphone, I tried to imagine what it would be like or how someone could pull this off.
“Doing what I do is about choosing this lifestyle. I am single and love this life. Giving up some things is part of the equation. This probably costs $1k – 1,500 per month. I have saved money when working for the forest service. My goal was to live off my per diem and save my earnings.”
I asked Skittles about his journey and his lifestyle. The more we chatted, I found myself being drawn to his choices and how he was living his life. “This is so stress free. I do not worry. I think about three main things each day, water, camp, and where is the next town.”
I asked about going through populated areas. “I enjoy the town stops. I will stay at a hotel, watch TV, order a pizza, and take a day here and there. If I see bad weather coming, I try to plan for that and have a rest day.”
I asked Skittles what his parents thought about him hiking across the U.S. “Before I was hiking, I was living in Alaska and other outdoor destinations. They would keep asking me when I am going to settle down. About 10 years ago, they quit asking.”
Skittles mentioned the support of his parents, family members and friends. “My parents have been happy because my route kept me in the Midwest a good part of the journey and they live in northern WI. This is the 4th time in two months they came to where I was hiking to see me. They came out to Ironwood, Mi, Duluth, MN, Grand Marais, MN and now at Lake of the Woods in Minnesota as I cross the border to complete my journey.”
As Richard approaches his goal of reaching the northernmost point of the contiguous U.S., Minnesota’s NW Angle, I asked him about his journey and what he was thinking. “When I am done with this whole thing, there will be this incredible memory. In the past, I have hiked trails that were all set up, etc. This was totally set up by my own design, which means, I may be the only person in history to do this exact hike. That is pretty cool to me.”
“I have known some people along the way. My previous job was with a wilderness crew which tends to attract a more transient crowd and are spread out across the U.S. Some of these people were not close or anything but we stayed connected through Facebook. As they see I am coming through the area, they often reach out.”
“I also met a lot of great people along the way. Some people intentionally try to help hikers on the trail. I tend to accept lodging at people’s homes and food if it is offered, but I do not accept money. I normally ask them to share that with those in need.”
One example of a chance meeting was a couple in Michigan. “A guy and his wife who have a hostel in southern MI put me up for three nights. His wife made me a nice lunch each day to take with me on my hike. You meet some really good people. It is interesting because I am pretty sure their political beliefs were very different from mine, but it didn’t matter. Just good people seeing me as another human being.”
After such a long journey, a life milestone, what is next for Skittles? “Now that I am done, I will go back to work again. I know I will have to work later into my life. Maybe when I am 65 and still working, I will question what I have done, but I doubt it. I would not be doing what I am doing if I did not think it was the right thing for my life. I tell my friends, I have been semi-retired since 2004,” he says with a grin.
“October 29th, I start my job in Ketchikan, AK as sports editor for the local newspaper. I have worked in that role before and was asked back. It fits well and I love the area. It rains a lot, 4 times rainier than Seattle, but it is so beautiful. I can hike 3 miles out of town and be in the alpines of the mountains above the tree line, which starts at 3k – 4k feet.”
I asked Skittles, now that he is getting to the end, any final thoughts. He reflected on how America looks a lot better interacting with people while hiking across it vs the impression you get when you turn on the TV. “This reaffirms to me that our country is still really a great country. When meeting people face to face, our country looks a lot nicer.”
If you would like to look at Skittles’ journal along the way, check out Trailjournals.com/skittles.
For more information about Lake of the Woods and the NW Angle, LakeoftheWoodsMN.com.