Photograph by Jacqueline Kehoe
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Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail—a nationally designated scenic trail—winds along the remnants of ancient glacial activity, including Devils Lake.

Photograph by Jacqueline Kehoe

Discovering an unexpected wilderness on Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail

Kept home by the pandemic, one writer explores a glacial history in her own backyard.

It’s a strange thing to believe that where you’re from doesn’t really have a “great outdoors.” The Midwest’s prairies, limestone bluffs, and river valleys—that’s just Land That Can’t Quite Be Farmed. A reflection of the wild, maybe, but not wild itself.

Above Colorado’s alpine tree lines, amongst Utah’s shades of red, hidden between California’s monstrous conifers—that’s when you’re somewhere wild. Out there you’re at adventure’s doorstep, or so they say. You’re approaching grandeur. You’re this close to more likes on Instagram. For years, I was proud to spend time in these lands deemed worthy of protection, attempting to kill off my roots in lands that aren’t.

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Roughly a million people enjoy the Ice Age Trail each year, though its sprawling length promises a good chance at solitude.

And then we entered a global pandemic. I was relegated to my own backyard, stuck somewhere I barely knew: Wisconsin. Life seemed sure to be smaller and stagnant, like a yearlong winter without the snow or ice. I imagined myself perpetually indoors, sipping tea and lighting fires despite the 85-degree heat.

That, of course, didn’t happen. I scoured the list of local green spaces, dead-set on finding a life raft. Even something not-quite-wild would be fine so long as it was quiet.

I settled on Indian Lake County Park, just northwest of Madison. Among its surprisingly sweeping views, my life got disrupted yet again: I discovered that the park’s wide-open trails were actually part of a 1,200-mile network called the Ice Age Trail. It was on the IAT that I’d start walking, and walking, and walking, and—finally—see.

The glacier’s ancient path

One of 11 National Scenic Trails in the United States, the Ice Age Trail winds through Wisconsin along the edges of the most recent glaciation, which ended some 10,000 years ago.

Ice Age Trail

Connecting Route

Ice Age Trail

Connecting Route

Zoom in to explore the Ice Age Trail in detail.


The trail is particularly wild up north, in the bear country of Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. It dives south toward Madison, where glacial meltwater met resistant quartzite and sandstone and created spectacular formations around Devils Lake, Parfrey’s Glen, and Gibraltar Rock. As it edges toward Milwaukee, the trail’s oldest sections trace Kettle Moraine State Forest’s roller-coaster hills, finally reaching its eastern terminus in Door County on the shores of Sturgeon Bay. Although you can see the glacier’s signature all across the country—New York State’s Finger Lakes, Washington State’s coulees—nowhere are traces of this polar rage clearer than right here.

The IAT marks an ancient, icy battleground, studded in every direction with formations like moraines, eskers, kames, and drumlins. All along the trail, you can track the carnage and chart the glacier’s movements. You can dunk your hand in kettle lakes, the watery orphans of a two-mile thick ice sheet that scraped and scoured every inch of this area. You can nearly step into this volatile past.

I walk through aspen and maple groves, remnants of oak savannah; along marshes, prairie, and drumlin fields; up flat-top buttes and terminal moraines. Seen on their own, the vistas are gentle and serene—but together they tell a story of destruction and transformation. Tune yourself into this way of thinking, and even the quietest sounds or changes in vegetation carry heft.

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The marks of ancient glacial activity remain on the landscape across northern North America, but nowhere are they more apparent than along the Ice Age Trail.

A section near Cross Plains reminds me of the Rockies: High on a narrow ridge, the pines are thick. The trail winds downward, enters town, and then heads east on a county road, at least for now. Like all our public lands, the IAT is a work in progress.

Trailblazing

The 13 staff and 2,376 volunteers of the Ice Age Trail Alliance (IATA) are still carving out the trail. Though it’s technically 1,200 miles long and has been a national scenic trail since 1980, it doesn’t entirely or easily connect—yet.

“A core of 50 or 60 of us show up to most [trail-building] events,” explains Bob Kaspar, volunteer coordinator of Dane County (and a volunteer himself). “We work hard, but there’s an immense amount of satisfaction there. You get a first-timer—maybe it’s only 100 feet they’re working on—but for the rest of their life, they’re going to say, ‘Hey. I built this.’”

They’ve got a ways to go. So far, volunteers have cut out and marked some 600-plus miles; connector segments will crisscross suburbs or wind down empty county roads until more suitable land is bought, acquired, or donated. Their painted yellow blazes always seem to far outnumber the hikers, and thru-hikers—aka “thousand-milers”—are a fairly recent phenomenon.

“Those of us who have hiked the trail are our own breed,” Tess Mulrooney tells me. She became a thousand-miler in 2013. “I don’t usually go for glamor, but I wanted to be one of the first 100. Getting to that number was really something. In just five years, it’s doubled” to 220, she says.

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Designated parking lots service nearly every segment of the trail, providing hundreds of options for day hikes. Maps and guidebooks are available through the Ice Age Trail Alliance.

I keep walking. At times I’m inches from cornstalks; others I’m navigating slippery boulders and mini canyons; others still I’m walking over fresh-laid boardwalks to the tune of tireless wood frogs. Most often, I do so alone. Though it’s estimated that roughly a million people gather on the trail each year to hike, snowshoe, or simply disconnect, you’d never know it. Though the pandemic may be changing that.

“Traffic on the trail has definitely increased with the pandemic,” says Gail Piotrowski, Central Moraines Chapter Co-Coordinator. “We expect there to be a lot of maintenance in the coming years—but the [organization] is incredibly well-led at the Alliance level. We get out there as family.”

I tell Gail that I want to work on the trail with my hands, too, giving back part of what’s been given to me. I tell her that I don’t own a good shovel and that I barely know how to work a screwdriver. She laughs and tells me I can be taught. “One of the oft-repeated phrases is ‘trail-building is people-building.’ That’s it for us.”

But for now, I simply walk, following a trail that winds for 1,200 miles just minutes from my door and marks a path of both destruction and creation—a trail built by 3,000 people who love this land and deem it worthy of protection.

“Take a hike alone,” Bob told me. “Take a look at what we’ve done—some of it’s a work of art.”

And it is. Because it’s only now, in all this disruption, that I’ve found the wild.

Jacqueline Kehoe is a freelance writer and photographer from the Midwest. Find her on Instagram.