Weekly Walk: Going off-trail

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Ellen Davis | September 13, 2017

The Weekly Walks for Sept. 5 and Sept. 6, 2017

The Tuesday hike, reported by Jake Gerlach:

On a chilly early fall evening nine experienced hikers showed up for our Tuesday hike. This evening we went to the Muir bike trails to hike a combination of orange and Rainy Dew trails. We did meet about a dozen bicycles along the trail. One came over a small hill just in front of me at a high rate of speed but we managed to avoid any collisions. Nancy C. found a clump of Indian pipes but there was not much else noteworthy in the woods this time of year.
The trail leader (me) had not traveled the Rainy Dew from this direction since they had rerouted the trail. I kept following the trail I remembered then I was on a path that did not look like it had had bikes on it recently. Then we came to some brush across the trail just before it joined another trail, so I knew I had just traveled an abandoned trail. The question was now “right or left?” I chose right (wrong) and we went quite a way before I decided we were going in the wrong direction. Eventually we backtracked and got back on familiar trails. I had just turned a three-mile hike into a four-mile hike and no one seemed very upset about it.  I have since figured out where and how I went wrong. The bike trails are very well marked in the direction that bikes travel; but usually unmarked for travel in the opposite direction. If an experienced trail guide gets confused, imagine what it would be for a novice!

The Wednesday long hike, reported by Marvin Herman:

A mostly sunny day with cool temperatures brought out 21 long hikers who regrouped at Nordic ski trails parking lot for what would be one of the great hiking adventures in memory.  Andy had a hike planned that most of us had done before and we pretty much followed the plan to a certain point. We took the Nordic blue trail to the 1-1/2-mile marker and then turned onto the bike connector trail hiking a series of trails including the Ice Age Trail, horse trails and snowmobile trails as well as some of the John Muir bike trails. The crisp air was invigorating and most hikers shed their light jackets as we went up and down the steep hills.

Soon we found ourselves climbing up towards Bald Bluff and then down towards its parking lot. Before heading down, we took a sharp right turn on the recent reroute of the trail which led us down a steep slope which I believed would lead us to a service road to County Highway. H. However, instead of bearing to the left, we headed right onto a trail that soon disappeared. In the spirit of our late leader and mentor, Russ Helwig, we continued on this off-trail adventure just to see where it would lead.  At some point, a few of the lead hikers could be seen up on an esker, far across a deep kettle while the rest of us sought to regain the IAT by climbing up the side of a hill on the opposite side of the kettle. One hiker had headed down into the deep part of the kettle and was unsure which way to proceed. Another hiker went down the hill to guide him up to the place where most of the hikers waited. We continued to make our way higher until we heard voiced ahead that the IAT had been found.  After a few hundred yards, the entire group was reunited and continued on the walk back towards Young Road, where we regained the ski trail for our return trip to the parking lot.

In all, we covered about nine miles. About half way through, at the four-mile mark, we made our first official refreshment stop. To energize us for the rest of the hike, the distance of which, at that point, was unknown to us, we enjoyed nuts from George, melon from Jo, and my personal favorite, Werther's coffee candy from Bridget.  As we hiked along, our attention was drawn to a stand of beautiful orange mushrooms. This was shortly after we emerged from the deep kettle. We also saw a magnificent cream gentian just off the trail.  Many hikers photographed this plant in flower. We also encountered heal all, also known as prunella vulgaris, an edible and medicinal plant, smart weed, a perennial plant of the buckwheat family, and snake root as well as carrion vine with its clusters of purple berries. Flowers of this plant are edible in the spring though they have a peculiar scent like that of dead animals. We also saw true and false Solomon seal. At the beginning of the Blue Spring IAT segment, we saw calico asters.

After our trail experience, most of the hikers adjourned to LaGrange General Store for food, conversation, a short songfest inspired by a tandem bike, and lots of desserts, shared by hikers who, although they were generous of spirit, did not really want to ingest the calories they had just burned off. All agreed that this had been a truly memorable adventure. Thanks to leader Andy for his daring to lead us off-trail in the spirit of Russ.

The Wednesday short hike, reported by Ellen Davis:

Out of an even dozen short-hikers, five of us were wildflower enthusiasts and the remainder at least tolerant of those who could gaze with fascination at some wild plant. Today the conditions were just right to stalk the wily blue fringed gentian in its native habitat, and off we went across Highway 12 in search of a certain secluded area off the Ice Age Trail where, in the past, these illusive beauties could be found.

Well into the hike, Jake stopped at some invisible marker that only he could recognize. He stepped off the trail, looked around, returned to the trail, moved a few feet and stepped off again. This time he was satisfied with what he saw and motioned the group to follow him down-slope through the underbrush.  (For some of our hikers this was an introduction to off-trail hiking, commonly called "bushwhacking" for obvious reasons.) We bushwhacked our way past a marsh, over decaying logs, through thorny berry patches and every kind of burr to come out, at last, at a lovely clear fast-flowing stream filled with watercress. The ground was soggy -- and graced not only with silky fringed gentians but also tiny lady's-tresses orchids and graceful anemone-like grass-of-Parnassis flowers. In addition to the usual goldenrod, joe-pye weed, and the other common inhabitants of wet areas we noted several patches of horsetail (equisetum) -- a "living fossil" that, in a larger version, dominated forest understories for over a hundred million years.

Back on the Ice Age Trail we took a break to remove burrs from our clothing then started back toward the trailhead. One hiker toward the end of the line mentioned tasting wild grapes recently, which started a search for wild grapes to taste along our trek. Those found were small, hard, and -- in the opinion of some -- rather nasty. We reached the parking lot with the group as a whole well-pleased with the adventure -- and the wildflower-lovers ecstatic over the pristine location and the unusual specimens we had seen.  Many in the group departed for lunch at the La Grange General Store, hoping for soup now that the weather is colder.  (It was noted that some hikers had fingers stained with the juice of wild grapes -- and a few burrs still clinging to their pants and jackets.)  All in all, it was a great hike on a beautiful early fall day.

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