Friday, November 14, 2014

Ice Age Trail in September

When I was hiking the Mantartio Trail, I couldn't take one step without carefully weighing where I should step next, which hummock, which crackling moss, which depth of water in the path, which patch of slick mud, how that rock's canted, whether that's slippery, and I kept saying, "Next trip I take, I am going somewhere flat on the Ice Age Trail and I am going to cruise." So I chose the Langlade County segment and I kept thinking, "This is going to be cake." I knew in my head that I faced an arduous journey fraught with the same risks, and special, different risks, than the Mantario Trail. I hiked 100 miles of the Lincoln and Langlade County IAT in 2012 and it was not cake by any means. The 2012 trip is the longest I've done alone; I arranged to be away ten days and completed my route in eight, partly because I was lonely. I parked at the lot on Lincoln County Road J near the Dunfield Townsite and hiked to the Veterans' Memorial Campground (and tagged out County Road A on a dayhike): that was a hundred miles. This September I planned to park at the ATV shelter off Lincoln County Road B (turns out you can't park overnight in Langlade County) and hike to the Kettlebowl Ski Area for a total of 93.8 miles, with the usual caveats that I can turn back any time I want, this is my hike, I have only myself to answer for, strength in weakness, I don't have to do this at all if I stop wanting to.

I did not end up hiking 93.8 miles in six days, but I did hike 87.6 miles in five days, which is damn good. I stayed up too late cleaning the night before and decided to sleep past my planned five a.m. leaving time. I was okay with that, really, because every extra hour of hiking on your first day is an hour of extra hiking on your last day, and I like my last days short. So I woke up at six and petted some bunnies for an extra long time. ChooChoo is a widow now; it was hard to leave her, but I arranged multiple rabbit visitors for the week to give love and treats. Also, Tim was taking a two week break from me, while he decided whether he wanted to be my boyfriend or not. (No, he doesn't.) I'd been keeping busy, getting ready for the trip mostly, but now I had a whole week ahead of me alone in the forest wondering whether I had a boyfriend or not. (No, I don't.) Spending the week holed up in my apartment drinking may have been the better option, but I went to northern Wisconsin instead. My drive was thoroughly uneventful. I stopped for a roll and a coffee at Isles Coffee first thing, so I didn't even need to stop anywhere unfamiliar for food on the way up. I finally got to the ATV shelter on B around 11:30, which was fine with me. When I drove up, there was a woman in a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources car in the parking lot, but she drove off while I was in the bathroom. I'd been to this ATV shelter before. In 2012, I came down the hill and waited for some ATV guys to drive off before scurrying across the open space to use the toilet block, and the parking lot simply reeked of blood. This time, it was not saturated with sanguinity, and I shouldered my pack. Then I stopped and took a compass bearing to make sure I was, in fact, pointing east not west. Assuredly eastbound, I headed out on the trail.

The trees were green with the just a hint of fall colors coming on. Birds sang, the sun was warm on my arms, and there wasn't a single mosquito anywhere. This trip could go well, if I remembered to keep my mood up and not focus on Tim. I walked a footpath through the woods and, as I began going uphill, I remembered that, Wisconsin though it was, I was on the Harrison Hills segment of the Ice Age Trail, the next segment was called Parrish Hills, and I was two miles east of a place called Lookout Mountain. The trail was easy but not flat. Coming up on a big hill, a motor ground through the trees. I must be coming up on a road? The trail got steeper and I hydrated my way up until, hey, a giant logging machine came into sight, chopping up a moderately-sized tree I was below him downhill so he couldn't see me, and if I kept on up the trail, I'd walk right into him and be crushed. I slowed down and looked around for a way to go into the forest and stay away without losing the trail. But the logger spotted me; he stopped his giant logging vehicle and hopped out so it was clear I was in no danger from swinging stump grinders. He said, "Are there any more of you?" I said, "Nope, just me," and passed him, and he went back to his growly machine. The whole hill was being denuded of trees. The trail was still decently marked with blazes and flagging, but there was destruction and fallen branches and bleak emptiness and dirt and piles of tree. It was a good reminder that I was in a managed forest. It was sad to see all the little trees that had gone to the chopper, but if I'm going to shop at IKEA or wipe with toilet paper, I have to accept that wood products come from somewhere, and better a managed forest than something else. The trail went around the side of the hill and past a man having a smoke break. We said hi, then I was back in the woods. The two campsites at Chain Lake looked kinda boring, but at least someone had labelled them since 2012, when I'd walked right by them with a "Huh, there were supposed to be campsites here," and then it was all chugging along through trees and furrows and grasses and sunshine, all well-blazed with good tread. I climbed uphill a long time and found myself on Baldy Hill, true to its name all tall grass and scattered red pine. It was nice and sunny up there to flop down and eat a Pearson's Nut Roll. Descending the hill and the warm sunny field at the bottom were beauteous too. I liked it there, but soon I came to the highway, and a woman in yoga pants talking on her phone and I said hi to each other. Then I spent twenty minutes in a forest of giant red pine, all uniformly planted, but so tall and dark and majestic, walking in beauty until I emerged across the street from someone's house. There were four houses in a row, the suburbs of Parrish, Wisconsin, and it took me a bit to figure out where the trail went: past the houses and across an interesting mossy moonscape to the Prairie River ford. Like I said, I hiked the Langlade County segment there-and-back in 2012, so I know the Prairie River ford is cake. It should be a wide bit of creek, slow-moving and calf-deep, but Wisconsin had the same rainy season we did, so this time the Prairie River was fast and above the knee, but nothing like fording Portage Brook on the Border Route Trail (which was terrible and the bridge was out and I had to swim the last four feet). I got a pokey-balancey stick just in case, and made my excessively cautious way across. Everything was fine, if laboriously slow. Everything on the other side of the river was mud for another half mile. I was still enjoying myself, though, and managing to keep happy thoughts. I made the disused picnic shelter where the IAT crosses a network of ATV trails, and began looking for a campsite. It was five o'clock, and I was on a network of logging roads passing thick stands of adolescent birch that were never going to have any tent-sized gaps in them. This is managed forest, these trees were planted to be harvested. I kept chugging along. There had been a few metal maps of the Ice Age Trail posted at the shelter, at an intersection, and at the bottom of the hill, and I thought I was farther along the trail than I was, so I was setting myself up to be disappointed the next morning. And I kept chugging along. I tried one clear area on the roadside, but quickly realized it was a beautiful bog with little red and gold moss flowers and nowhere to stand without getting my feet wet, so I pushed on. At a downhill, the forest changed from farmed birch to older, mixed deciduous, and a little bit further, the trail turned off the logging road and up a hill. There was one campsite option practically in view of the road, a disused turnaround for logging vehicles. I dropped my pack there, and decided to see if I could find anything better up ahead in fifteen minutes there and back. So I had seven and a half minutes to walk ahead, and seven and a half minutes to walk back, and it was slightly after 6:00pm already, so that was all I got. Daylight was burning. I went five minutes up, through lovely green forest and found another clearing right off the trail. The other sight was fine, but I was happy to sleep somewhere less gravelly. I went back for my pack and set up all my nice tent and food and eating and brushing my teeth and I was in my toasty sleeping bag while the darkness settled around me. I was only wearing one set of long underwear, and I was so comfortable that I left my sleeping bag unzipped until four in the morning. At five, the rain started. I listened to it pounding on my roof, realized there was nothing I could do about it, and rolled over. I'd known it was coming. I got up at 5:30 and got my inside-the-tent jobs done while waiting to see when it would get light out: A bit after 6:00. Not too bad. I ate quickly in the wet. I brought Trader Joe's cookie butter instead of peanut butter and jelly this time, because cookie butter is yummy and it eliminates the jelly spreading step. To be clear, I was using shelf-stable, fruit-flavored, HFCS, squeeze jelly so I don't regret the dearth of dietary camping fruit, but I found myself missing the peanut butter's protein.

I thought I was pretty close to Townline Lake, based on You Are Here dots on the metal signs, but it took a good two hours to get there. The rain was coming down intermittently and the weather wasn't cold. I'd made the morning decision to not wear my raincoat. If wore my raincoat all day, I would be a steamy, sweaty, damp mess with no rain layer to keep my dry clothes dry at my camping spot that night: Veteran's Memorial Campground, twenty miles away. Fortunately, I couldn't stop hiking without getting cold, so I had good impetus to push myself and get there. The stretch between wherever I was and Townline Lake was absolutely beautiful, although my mood was not. The trail past my campsite kept uphill, then dipped into a wide pine bog with so much green and followed that up and down to a little lake ringed with the softest carpet of bright green moss and tall pines. I hoped that it was the other end of Townline Lake, but it wasn't. The trail kept on through woods and rolling hills and then came back out on a logging road with a serious view of a valley resplendent with fall colors. From then on, I descended on logging roads and ATV trails until the IAT jogged off and crossed the stream that fed Townline. The approach to the lake is an amazing steep hill covered in red pines. Townline Lake picnic area is beautiful too, especially the outhouse. I was cozy and warm in there. I dropped my pack outside and texted Edward, since I hadn't heard from mom on my InReach yet. Edward was doing well, and hearing from him made me happier. I pulled water from the lake and crossed County Road T to the less interesting logging road between Townline Lake and the south fork of the Eau Claire River. I camped down there in 2012, on an abandoned logging road a few hundred feet off the active logging road. I cooked supper in the main road because everything else was tall grass and it was seven in the evening. I had my bowl of beans in my hand, and my stove put out, and my bottom in my chair, in the road, when I heard a truck coming. I leapt up, grabbed all my stuff, and moved to the roadside. Some guys drove by. We waved. I sat down again, ate up my beans, and decided this was the night to make the dehydrated apple brown betty. So I boiled water, added betty, and left the stove to burn out its fuel pellet in the middle of the road while I was enjoying my desert food, when I heard that truck again. I ran and kicked the burning stove to the side of the road, and I was standing next to it making sure I didn't burn down the forest when the truck came by. One of the guys rolled down his window and awkwardly said, "Do you need a ride anywhere?" I said, "No, thanks. They drove off, while I tried to look cool, like I just stand next to logging roads looking cool in my spare time and I didn't have a small fire next to my shoe. This time, I walked past my former campsite and waved at it.

The bridge was out on the Eau Claire River, but it didn't matter because the Eau Claire is maybe four feet wide and eighteen inches deep. There are stepping stones in case you're not feeling bridgely, but they were too slippery to trust in the rain. From the Eau Claire, the Ice Age Trail follows logging roads and crisscrosses public and private land. The forest is thicker and greener and flatter than the logging roads from Townline to the Eau Claire, where it's all a bit dry and gravelly. I liked this segment, and I liked being back in the land of good trail markers. I stopped for lunch under a pine tree, where the branches didn't shelter me from the rain but they pretended to try. The temperature was still in the low º60s or upper º50s, but I was well soaked. I really did like this segment of the trail, the way it felt remote yet the roads were easy and the woods were so thick. Then the trail turns right onto an unpaved road slowly growing some driveways that lead to houses or cabins, and a broken down trailer and fifty-year-old truck and deer stand in the distance. This is the beginning of civilization, and the four mile road segment. Four miles is a long way to walk, in the rain, in public, past the houses of people who bathed last night and don't have big backpacks on and are not wearing slightly silly hats, but almost nobody was home; it was Tuesday afternoon. About a mile and a half along, the houses stop on the right hand side and become the Bogus Swamp State Natural Area, which doesn't look like much from the road but would be amazing in pontoon shoes. On the left, the houses turn into cabins and move back from the road among the trees. There's a whole chain of lakes in their backyards and a public boat launch, but I didn't stop to pull water. I kept chugging along until the lovely gate that pulls you back onto the Ice Age Trail proper and the area around 4-H Camp Susan, entirely suffused with a lush, pale green light. Thin birch forest slopes along an esker between two lakes and a deer stopped and stared at me. Most of the trees along the trail are helpfully labeled with laminated, framed fact sheets. "White pines have bundles of five needles." I didn't stop to read all the signs because I still had a ways to go, but I allowed myself to learn about conifers, and then I came to to 4-H Camp Susan's dumpster. I don't know much about 4-H Camp Susan and the internet doesn't help, but, based on my appreciation of summer camp architecture (thanks, Manufactured Wilderness: Summer Camps and the Shaping of American Youth, 1890-1960 by Abigail Van Slyck!), it was built in the '20s on land too marshy to do much with. It's situated between at least five lakes, one with a nice little beach. I made a note to sniff around more on the way back.

The 4-H Camp Susan driveway is long. Looooong. At least a mile and a half long, and dappled in a soft green light spilling between birches and little white pines between wetlands and a lake or two. I tried to enjoy my walk as much as I could and eat a nut roll, because it was still raining and I was getting cold. I was also having trouble with my pants button. I mentioned that the original button holding up my pants fell off on the Mantario Trail, and I'd replaced it with a pink and purple flower-shaped button that I got off a blazer. (I' look sharp in the blazer now I've replaced the button with something more mature.) I sewed it on my pants for a bit of bug-resistant-pants-flare, but I was realizing that one's cold, wet, mittened fingers must negotiate every petal of a flower button through the button hole, when one is trying to use the restroom that is a place underneath a tree, in the rain, with the temperature dropping, and one might as well be doing brain surgery, in mittens. This was my burden. I walked hard to get my blood going, crossed County Road B, had a hop, skip, and an ATV trail to Highway 64, and made the Old Railroad segment. Nearly there. The Old Railroad segment is, of course, an ATV trail built on the back of the olde railroad that carried wood out of the lumbercamps back before Langlade County managed its forests. When I hiked the old railroad segment before, it was lovely to step from one railroad tie to the next on the grassy grass pitted by stupid ATV manouevers, but in the rain, the Old Railroad segment was a complicated mess of historical hummocks, foot-deep puddles, tall grass and mud. The trail goes east, so I went east, then it goes due south, so I went due south, then it crosses the old rail switching, which is a mowed clearing with a plaque now, and goes east. I went east for thirty seconds and a deer looked at me. I looked at it. It looked at me. I said hello. It looked at me. We looked at each other. I looked at it. It ran off. I walked on for another minute and a half and checked my map. Here I was at a place where the trail turned right and went about twenty feet to County Road J. The campground was off County Road J. I would walk along County Road J and not navigate a bunch of railroad ties and puddles and disturb that deer. So I did. By that time the temperature had dropped significantly. Not wearing my raincoat had been the right decision for most of the day, but, now, no matter how hard I walked, I was cold. I was wearing my new yellow shirt made out of sports fabric and I was under the impression that it had wicking powers. Maybe if I was jogging in the sunshine working up a light sweat, the shirt would pull moisture off my skin, but, saturated, it did nothing. Over the yellow shirt I had my orange bug-resistant shirt made of camping fabric. It has no hydropowers, but it's never sucked in rain before. Now it was trapping all the cold water falling on my body and holding it against my skin. I had to wring out my gloves every five minutes. I was freezing, and there was nothing I could do about it except walk harder. It was somewhere on County Road J when I noticed that my right leg wasn't working like it usually does. That part of walking where you pick one foot up and swing it forward and the other foot goes next. I couldn't swing my right foot up more that a few inches, and when I did, it hurt . On hills, I was shuffling. I turned right at Park Road and my tired feet kept moving, and then I was at Half Penny Road, and then I was at Veterans' Memorial Campground. I had to walk another quarter mile onward to the campsites, but I could do that. It was okay. I was here, that was the main thing. No one was at the check-in kiosk, but the ranger's house had a light on. Because it's the Veteran's Memorial Campground, there's a big weird mural of US soldiers in various wars set up on the main lawn, next to a tank. There's the Revolutionary War guy, then the Civil War guy, the WWI guy in his gas mask, the WWII guy, and then there's a gaunt, screaming Asian man wearing a blanket. He could be an Asian-American soldier in combat, he's probably Vietkong, but why paint one enemy into your mural? Then there's a soldier who's either aiming at blanket man or representing the covert wars of the '80s, and there's a desert camo fellow. Past the mural is tee one of the frisbee golf course, then the dumpsters and RV station, and then the campground proper. The bathroom was my goal. That bathroom! (I've blogged about this bathroom before.) It was heated slightly and the lights were on and it was home. I walked in there with my pack on and changed out of my saturated clothes as quick as I could. My wet clothes could hang in the bathroom overnight and hopefully not inconvenience anybody. Besides the ranger and his family, I might be the only person in the campground, and I decided to stash my food in the bathroom too. I didn't want to do a bear hang if I didn't have to. It's awkward hanging your food in a tree in an RV campground where everybody else puts their food in their refrigerators. But there were no RV people here tonight. I always avoid camping alone in places with road access. Most tent camper attacks are perpretated by non-campers who drive to frequently used campsites to commit their crimes, but this had a ranger on premises, and men driving around looking for trouble on, say, a hot Friday night in July, are less likely to be driving around on a rainy Wednesday in September. Eventually I had to leave the bathroom and set up my tent. My night was cold. My clothes dried out in the bathroom, but I didn't warm up. It was kind of a shitty morning. I hadn't heard back from my parents on the InReach yet, so I texted Edward to see what was up and packed slowly while waiting to hear back from him. I didn't want to start walking in the wrong direction if something bad had happened at home and I should be walking back to my car. Edward did text me back but he hadn't talked to mom yet. However, if something dire was afoot she would have called him, so I slowly started on my way throught the campground's maze of nature trails in the direction I thought would bring me back to the IAT. One of the unique features of the Veterans' Memorial Campground is that all the metal campground maps have You Are Here dots indicating that you are near the woodpile by frisbee golf hole number eight. Whether you are by the lake, the bathroom, the camper cabins, frolf hole number seventeen, or the arboretum, the campground map you are scrutinizing has a You Are Here dot by the woodpile near frolf hole eight. This is fine if you're by the lake or the bathroom, but if you're walking one segment of the Veterans' Memorian Campground's extensive network of nature trails trying to find the right one, it quickly becomes frustrating. The Veterans' Memorial Campground's nature trails all have intermittent laminated signs detailing the habits and habitats of animals you might see in northern Wisconsin. I learned about swans, otters, bears, and beavers as I walked along. Soon, I came to three forks in the path. The map showed a two-fork way, so I approximated in the direction that looked most correct assuming I was where I thought I was. Over a hummock and through some woods, I learned about snowshoe hares and ended up behind the dumpsters at the entrance to the campground. Shit. I walked back to my campsite and tried again. This time I went by the new camper cabins, across a spot-logged zone, down a winding trail, learned about deer, and turned up on the other end of my campground looking at some RV neighbors whom I hadn't seen the night before. We said hi, and then I took another fork, ignored facts about Canadian geese, and found the Ice Age Trail. It was almost ten o'clock in the morning already, but today would be shorter than yesterday and I was back where I should be. I crossed a little footbridge over the creek between Jack and Game Lakes, bore right past the backpacking campsite on Game, and crossed a magnificent-marvel-of-backwoods-engineering, showcase-of-a-campground-with-many-unique-features boardwalk-of-unusual-length across a the marshy lake. It was somewhat worse for the wear after the wet summer, but it was sturdy and I was feeling better as I left it, admired a Muir bench, and continued walking around the lake. Quite around the lake. The lake was long. Was I going in the direction I'd already come in but on the other side of the lake? Where were the yellow blazes? Oh, look, a bridge. The same one I crossed twenty minutes ago. Stupid lake, being circular. How did I miss my turn? My feet hurt. I sat down and bridge-cried because I was tired and my family wasn't responding to my texts and my boyfriend didn't love me and the lake was dumb. Then I took myself in hand, I texted Edward, got up, and went over the boardwalk again. The Ice Age Trail was right at the other end, straight up a hill. Up to a nice, spot-logged forest, and I kept on chugging and waiting for a text from my brother. My mood was shot. Why didn't Tim love me? The rest of the day was like that. The single-track trail came out pretty quickly onto a logging road, the end of what I'd hiked in 2012. That time, I camped at Veterans' Memorial Campground and took a day hike to tag out County Road A and complete a hundred miles. When I hiked here before, there were tree trunks stacked in the clearings and logging trucks parked on the sidings, but coming back, I couldn't tell where I'd seen logging. A forester could probably tell by eyeballing it, but it's nice to get confirmation that when Langlade County posts a historical plaque that says "First county in Wisconsin to manage forests, regrowth, habitat, paper products, blah blah" they mean that when something gets cut down something else gets planted, even if it's going to be cut down again in a decade. They're literally tree farming.

County Road A marked the end of Old Railroad segment and the beginning of Lumbercamp, named for the lumbercamp I was heading to. A farm turned up on my right. Bethany texted to say the rabbits were okay and that cheered me up a bit. I passed one tiny lake on my left and didn't realize that would be the last good water I'd see all day. The woods thinned out. Into Peters Marsh State Wildlife Area the trail changed from logging road to rough truck track. Someone probably drives up it twice a year and mows the grass. Edward finally texted. He'd been in a meeting (sorry, Edward), but he talked to mom and everything was okay but she hadn't heard from me either so the InReach wasn't working. I hit County Road S in the early afternoon and switched from marshy grassland with choppy walking to a forest of no particular note with mud roads and easy walking. I could do this. I was getting there. I could walk three miles, four miles. My water situation was bordering on dire. Since I missed the lake, I hadn't filled up since the morning and I was down to one liter. The map didn't show any water and it was dawning on me that there wouldn't be adorably random trickling streams like there are in the Parrish Hills segment. I thought about pulling water from one of the rainwater tire rut puddles in the road, but I was lucky enough to find a seasonal run-off pond that was less bad and I pulled a bottle. If I found better water later, I could dump it out. Water accomplished, I had to keep walking. And walking. And walking. Someone had been walking their dog on this road earlier. Recently, I'd say, since the rain stopped last night. The person must have been walking on the grass on the side of the road, because there were no shoe prints, but the dog walked steadily down the middle of the road, for a long way. It was a huge dog. Massive. And badly needing a claw clipping. This dog had hooked claws. Like a bear. Now where was this building I was supposed to be sleeping in? I looked at my watch. Based on how long I'd been walking and where I thought I was, I had at least half an hour to go. I was drinking mud water. Tim was going to break up with me. How would I know when I found my secret root cellar if it was buried in the ground?

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