Following the Ice Age Trail in a new book, ‘Thousand-Miler’
Chances are you’ve heard of the Appalachian Trail, the hiking path that runs 2,179 miles (3,507 kilometers) from Georgia to Maine. You may also be familiar with the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile (4,265-kilometer) route from California to Canada.
But unless you live in Wisconsin, you may not know about the 1,100-mile (1,770-kilometer) Ice Age Trail. Melanie Radzicki McManus hopes to bring more attention to that route with a new book, “Thousand-Miler.” McManus, 55, set women’s records for fastest-known times on the Ice Age Trail, completing it in 36 days in 2013 and 34 days in 2015.
Her book, just out from the Wisconsin Society Historical Press, documents the challenges that she and others faced hiking the Ice Age Trail — from getting lost to blisters, injuries, ticks, bears and dogs — as well as the rewards.
“Whether you’re from Wisconsin or somewhere else, when you hike a trail like that, you get such a deep connection with the land and with the outdoors,” McManus said in an interview.
One memorable moment was a downhill stretch into a field edged with grasses, creating a “stunning effect, like a carpet being unrolled for royalty,” she recalled. “I made my way down this thing like I was a bride going down the aisle.” When she encountered a cairn, a mound of stones left by previous visitors about halfway through her trek, “I felt like the trail was saying, ‘Way to go, you’re halfway there. We salute you.’ It was a magical feeling.”
The Ice Age Trail follows a landscape of woods, hills and wetlands sculpted by the retreat of glacial ice 12,000 years ago. The trail runs from St. Croix Falls across the northern half of Wisconsin in a squiggly east-west line before dipping into a giant U, with its eastern terminus in Potawatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay.
McManus chose to run the trail on what’s known as a supported hike, meaning that she was picked up and dropped off each day at predesignated spots by car. That also lightened her load: She didn’t have to carry a tent or more than a day’s worth of supplies.
But simply finding her way proved to be a big part of the adventure. Only a little more than half of the Ice Age Trail is completed and some sections are in poor condition. Hikers use roads to connect the trail segments. GPS reception is unreliable, so detailed maps and a compass are essential. McManus writes of being disoriented, backtracking and hunting for trail markers that were sometimes missing or hard to see.
Another challenge was persevering despite a bacterial skin infection called cellulitis that developed in her feet. “One day a time, one hour at a time, one step at a time” became her mantra. “Every time the pain was superbad, I would just keep walking, just thinking about taking the next step,” she said.
Long-distance hiking has boomed in popularity since the 1970s. There were just 10 through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail in 1970, but more than 1,000 completed the trail last year. Some 17,500 hikers in all are believed to have completed the Appalachian Trail.
In contrast, the number of Ice Age Trail through-hikers to date is still under 150 and the trail’s first known through-hike wasn’t reported until 1979, the year before it was designated a National Scenic Trail.
Of course, through-hikers on any trail represent a tiny fraction of those who use it. A study by the University of Wisconsin concluded that 1.25 million people used the Ice Age Trail in 2012.
McManus said that while the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails are the best-known of America’s long-distance trails, “don’t overlook these smaller ones.” She recommends the Point Beach, Chippewa Moraine and Kettle Moraine areas for beginning hikers to experience the Ice Age Trail.
“I would just hope people — whether it’s the Ice Age Trail or a trail in their own backyard — just get out and explore,” she said. “You don’t have to hike 1,100 miles. You can hike a mile or 5 miles.”