As the sun slides toward the horizon, its long, golden fingers cast sparkles across the small lakes dimpled into the earth beside me. Eager to capture this Kodak moment, I pause to fish my camera out of my backpack. Suddenly a flash of color catches my eye. It’s my husband, Ed. Striding purposefully toward me, he picks up a thick stick lying near my feet and wields it like a bat.
“Now, don’t panic,” he says. “But I just saw a bear.”
Call me naive, but I hadn’t considered the possibility of running into bears when I’d decided to hike all 1,100 miles of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail (IAT). But here I am on its Grassy Lake segment with a large, sharp-clawed animal just steps away. I pause as the sun tosses a few more flashes across the lakes. I want to take some photos. Instead, I zip my camera back into my pack and tuck in behind Ed, who begins bravely marching down the trail. We reach the spot where he spied the furry hulk moments ago just as a light wind sends the leaves chattering. Nothing.
“Since the bear is gone, I’ll tell you something else,” Ed says. “It was so close to me, I saw it blink.”
Conceived in the 1950s, the Ice Age Trail winds across, down and up the state of Wisconsin, gently tracing the edge of the last glaciation, which ended some 10,000 years ago. Along the way, hikers are afforded prime views of some of the world’s best-preserved glacial remains — eskers, kames, kettles and more.
Partly because of this glacial largesse, the IAT is part of an elite group of 11 National Scenic Trails that includes the famed Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails, plus the North Country Trail that clips the United States’ northern frontier from New York to North Dakota. Yet many people aren’t aware of the IAT’s existence. Surprising, since 60 percent of Wisconsinites live within 20 miles of some segment of the trail, which is also just a short jog from major population centers like Chicago and the Twin Cities. Perhaps it’s because the IAT isn’t fully completed; some 450 road miles stitch together the 650 or so miles of blazed trail. Or perhaps more people simply need to experience the trail and spread the word.
The wilderness and me
Not too long after the bear encounter, Ed heads home, leaving me alone to hike the remaining 900-some miles. I do have friends taking turns crewing me, shuttling me to inns every night and supplying me with food, water and other needs, but on the trail it’s just me and Mother Nature.
I continue picking my way along the remote northern paths — some 300 miles between St. Croix Falls and Antigo — encountering few hikers and facing often-rugged conditions. I ford two creeks in the Averill-Kelly segment, scramble over immense jumbles of rock near roaring Grandfather Falls and stumble over the lumpy beaver dams stitching together small, sapphire lakes that wink at me like jewels.
Heading south, I’m led out of the soft, silky silence that enveloped me in the North Woods and am dipped in and out of humanity. One minute I’m tiptoeing across a thick carpet of cushy pine needles near peaceful Mecan River, which bottled-water giant Perrier once wanted to tap, and the next I’m being led through a giant culvert under Interstate 39, thrumming with traffic, then unceremoniously dumped out at a wayside. Skirting Madison, seemingly deep in the woods, I hear the puttering of motorized carts and am suddenly walking along University Ridge Golf Course.
Cities along the trail
The trail takes me through a handful of cities, ranging from bustling Janesville to touristy Delafield to former shipbuilding powerhouse Manitowoc. I’m led through squishy marshland, across bumpy farm fields and instructed to take a free ferry crossing the Wisconsin River. I hike through the thickly wooded Dunes segment, where tiny saw-whet owls are banded and tracked during their spring and fall migrations and along the sandy shores of Lake Michigan before the trail deposits me with a flourish at the observation tower in Sturgeon Bay’s Potawatomi State Park, the IAT’s eastern terminus.
During my hike I blistered the bottoms of both feet, sunburned the tops of my ears and developed some interesting tan lines. I spied deer, turkey, cranes galore and a herd of bugling elk, but thankfully no blinking bears. I had an utter blast. Now it’s time to spread the Ice Age Trail gospel.
Melanie Radzicki McManus of Sun Prairie, Wis., is a freelance writer who focuses on health and travel.