An Ice Age ramble: Twosome set to finish 1,200-mile trail
ROCK COUNTY—Michael Thayer Jr. and his wife, Dawn, understand there is nothing like walking to get the feel of the land.
Next month, the Portage County couple will finish hiking Wisconsin's 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail.
They plan to complete the last 1.6 miles in Rock and Walworth counties, close to where Michael grew up near Whitewater Lake.
They invite anyone serious about hiking the unique trail to join them.
The Thayers have done a fair amount of hiking.
But they agree the Ice Age Trail revealed beauty they did not know existed.
“I've lived in the state my whole life and did not realize the diversity of the land,” Michael said. “Without doing this, I probably never would have known. I'm probably not alone.”
In September 2013, Michael and Dawn took their first walk on a portion of trail that runs through Hartman Creek State Park near Waupaca.
The autumn walk began their journey through a remarkable landscape sculpted by an immense flow of glacial ice more than 12,000 years ago.
“My wife was the optimist,” 48-year-old Michael said. “She thought we could do it in three years. I thought five.”
Both Michael and Dawn completed a couple of walking marathons and walking half marathons in Stevens Point and knew they had the endurance. They planned their routes using maps from the Ice Age Trail Alliance of Cross Plains.
To begin, they hiked on day trips and then took weekends and stayed with friends and family, who shuttled them to trail heads.
The walk of discovery took them through glacial remnants that geologists consider among the world's finest examples of how glaciation has sculpted the planet.
Michael and Dawn learned about kettles, kames and moraines, names given to the singular topography crafted by ice flows.
But what they remember so fondly are the unexpected wildlife sightings, the smell of the woods and the solace to the soul.
“There were many things in our lives that brought us to this quest,” Dawn writes in a journal of their hike. “A love of the outdoors, a search for a low-cost activity that is also good for our health and a longing to do something epic.”
She said there is “an unbelievably short list of people who have completed the trail.”
The Ice Age Trail Alliance has recognized 151 people who have finished the walk.
A third of the thousand-milers have hiked the trail in one continuous journey. The others have done it in sections over several years, like the Thayers.
Among their favorite hikes are:
-- Gibraltar Rock State Natural Area in southern Columbia County.
The trail takes hikers from the base of a 200-foot butte to the top and then down the other side. At the top, the Thayers enjoyed scenic views of the Wisconsin River Valley and Lake Wisconsin.
“We saw expansive, rolling hills and the lake,” Michael said. “Vultures soared below us because the elevation is so high.”
-- The Plover River in Marathon County.
“We did this segment when the trilliums were blooming,” Michael said. “The trail wound through rolling hills, and the white flowers were everywhere.”
-- Northern Blue Hills in Rusk County.
“We really enjoyed a huge beaver dam you walk across at the edge of a lake,” Michael said.
-- New Hope-Iola Ski Hill in Portage County.
“This is my wife's favorite segment,” Michael said. “It is a forested area with huge rolling hills. They alternate with no undergrowth to places where the undergrowth is heavy. If we ever got into cross-country skiing, we would ski the area.”
-- Point Beach in Manitowoc County.
Michael called the segment a hidden treasure along the sandy shoreline of Lake Michigan “because the lake and sandy beach could be any coastal area.”
The Thayers saw a variety of wildlife, including nesting great blue herons, a couple of black bears and a porcupine.
They encourage others to get to know Wisconsin's beautiful natural areas one step at a time on the trail.
“It is a big undertaking, but if you break it into pieces, it makes it achievable,” Michael said. “If you are afraid to get started, this is motivation to help someone else begin.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
ICE AGE TRAIL FACTS
-- A partnership among the National Park Service, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Ice Age Trail Alliance manages the 1,200-mile trail.
-- The trail is open for hiking, backpacking and snowshoeing. Many segments also support cross-country skiing.
-- The trail is not yet complete. More than 600 miles are yellow-blazed Ice Age Trail segments, and more than 500 miles of unmarked connecting routes link the blazed segments.
-- The trail's western terminus is in Interstate State Park in St. Croix Falls, Polk County. It overlooks the St. Croix River and neighbors Minnesota.
-- The trail's eastern terminus is in Potawatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay, Door County.
-- Volunteers largely build and maintain the trail. In 2016, more than 2,000 volunteers put in more than 76,700 hours.
-- Most of the blazed segments fit hikers' ideas of traditional, off-road hiking. However, some segments lead hikers down the main streets of Wisconsin communities.
-- The trail occasionally coincides with state bike trails. Biking is allowed on these sections only. Horseback riding is not permitted. Motorized vehicles are not permitted with the exception of a few segments that share state multi-use trails.
-- The trail began in the 1950s as the dream of Milwaukee resident Ray Zillmer, who had a vision of a long, linear park winding through Wisconsin along the glacier's terminal moraine.
-- The trail travels through 31 counties and crosses over private land, city parks, state parks, county forests and national forests.