Take three strong, male power-hikes and two women backpackers, put them in three feet of snow on the the Vermont border in March and head them toward a finish line on an Indian reservation in North Dakota.

Who gets there?

Forget the men: All three gave up before spring became a fact in the mountains of Pennsylvania. One of the women would have made it but she had a bad bicycle spill in Ohio that knocked her off the path for seven weeks.

That left Carolyn Hoffman to walk the 3,500 miles of the uncharted North Country Trail last spring, summer and fall. Hoffman, a 27-year-old small-town newspaper editor, got there by keeping her eyes on the road and her feet on the ground for seven months and 10 days.

She is the first person ever to walk the trail, which in many places is not a trail at all. Her mission was to map the proposed route for the International Backpackers Association, which is working with the Interior Department to get the stretch designated a national scenic trail.

Her male colleagues at the start included one stalwart who had marched the length of the Appalachian Trail and another who runs a backpacking school.

Hoffman, a thin slip of a woman with blond hair below her waist outlasted them by thinking small.

"On a trip like this," she said the day after she got home two weeks ago, "you can make all kinds of plans. But you have to be able to change completely at a moment's notice.

"Sometimes the route would follow a certain trail. It might be impassable, but the men wanted to do it anyway.

"We knew when we started that we'd have to average 15 miles a day, but sometimes we couldn't do it. They'd insist that we keep going. They were always thinking about North Dakota, even when we were in New York."

Hoffman and partner Lou Ann Fellows preferred to take it one day at a time, which is a fine way to take it when you wake up three days into the trip and find that the temperature outside the snowbound tent is 20 below zero.

The party left Crown Point, New York, on March 5. They had a 16-day snowshoe hike through the Adirondacks before they hit their first mail stop in Westernville, New York. Practically the only people they saw in those first 16 days, Hoffman said, were trappers on snowmobiles.

Hoffman, who learned her woodsmanship by fellowing her father on hunting trips in Central Pennsylvania and two had never made a major hike before, found long-distance trekking very basic. "You eat, you walk, you sleep. We didn't plan anything. We just walked until there was some reason not to. You're tired, you're hungry; it's getting dark. You stop."

The North Country route is charted in a 300-page proposal prepared by Interior. That chart was the basis for Hoffman's walk, but she wound up less than thrilled by the preparation that went into it.

"It was drawn up by people in Washington who obviously didn't know what they were looking at," she said.

One of the worst shocks was in Ohio, where she found that most of the so-called Buckeye Trail selected by Interior ran exclusively along roads through farmland.

"No way we were going to walk 700 miles on some road," she said. "There wasn't even any place to pitch a tent."

So she and Fellows bought 10-speed bikes and blasted across the Buckeye State at a 40-mile-a-day clip. She lost Fellows at the end of that leg in a crash at the base of a hill that left her partner with three fractured vertebrae and a bruised kidney.

It didn't slow Hoffman who took off for Grand Rapids and the Manistee National Forest beyond. "It was beautiful," she said, and it was soon topped by the Silver Dunes along northern Lake Michigan, where she walked "for days along the beach with no roads, no people, not even a footprint in the sand."

She ferried across Lake Michigan at the Straits of Mackinac on July 4, marched through Hiawatha National Forest and on to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on the lower edge of Lake Superior. There Fellows rejoined her.

There were long miles yet to go, many through deep forests and around impenetrable swamps in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota.

One discovery that surprised Hoffman was that in these parts backpacking is no common recreation. "I don't think we met a dozen backpackers all summer long. People use the trails in the winter for skiing or snowmobiling, but the swamps and mosquitos drive them off in the summer. People would ask what we were doing. We'd say backpacking. 'Oh' they'd say, 'you mean hitchhiking?'"

Actually, it ended up that way. They were hiking through Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, headed for Charging Eagle Bay Bridge over Lake Sakakawea just a few days from their finish line.

Only there was no Charging Eagle Bay Bridge.

"We hitched a ride from an Indian in a pickup," said Hoffman. "He took us around the lake." From there it was an easy jaunt to Four Bears Memorial Park and a two-day bus ride back home.

Now Hoffman is working on a 100-page report, which she hopes will help Interior get the North Country approved as a national trail. It didn't fare well in the last session of Congress: It was excised from the bill that get the Continental Divide Trail added to the national scenic trails roster.

The next step for this long-range hiker: "I've got to find a job . . . "