A First in the Fourth

By Mike Summers, Guest Writer and Thousand-Miler
Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Ice Age Trail, Mike Summers Winter 2017 thru-hike
The all too familiar icicles of winter hiking. Photo by Mike Summers.

I crunched up the snow-covered remnants of the Niagra Escarpment in Wisconsin’s Potowatomi State Park on a sunny, 32-degree December day. My westbound thru-hike of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail (IAT) had begun, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Neither did anyone else.

No one had attempted a self-supported thru-hike in the winter months, and many thought it a little strange to try. But for me, the dreaded “fourth season” of backpacking invoked not fear, but intrigue. This hike would be a test to see if I really enjoyed backpacking, even in the most unforgiving of conditions.

Ice Age Trail Alliance, Ice Age Trail, Mike Summers Winter 2017 thru-hike
The solitude and perfection of cowboy camping. Photo by Mike Summers.

After a year of planning, researching, and visualizing the trek, I started toward the IATs western terminus with a frameless backpack overloaded with cold-weather gear, shoulders already aching, a sweat breaking on my brow as I snowshoed in only base layers.

This was not quite what I had had in mind.

The winter of ’16/’17 was a mild one for Wisconsin. Historic weather data showed record low temperatures of forty below zero in some parts of the state, and I packed enough gear along to combat these extreme possibilities. I often found myself praying for cold, snowy weather so I could add layers and lighten my pack.

At times I got the cold I wanted. Out in the open farms, along the roads, and in the prairies, wind raced through unobstructed. I often hiked into these cold, biting winds, clear-lensed ski goggles necessary for forward sight. On a brisk 6-degree morning, I forded the Prairie River barefoot, breaking through ice and sinking into the slushy riverbed as I crossed.

I vowed to walk all the road walk sections, even when it was 35 degrees and pouring rain. After denying a ride from kind passerby, he said, “It seems like a miserable day to be walking.” And he couldn’t have been more right; I was miserable. But six hours later, I was dry and happy with a new book in tow thanks to a trail angel in Verona.

Despite the many hardships of winter hiking, it’s the generous people of Wisconsin who made this hike possible. I stayed with trail angels for 19 of the 58 nights, each person unknown prior to the journey. The other 33 nights I slept outside, near the trail. Half of those nights were spent cowboy camping under the bare trees and open sky. On seven occasions I strolled into a bar for a burger and a beer only to get talking with the locals and become the recipient of unbelievable trail magic. Twice pet dogs introduced me to owners who invited me into their home. Without these acts of kindness, the hike would have been much tougher.

The warmest day of the trip, at 55 degrees, just so happened to be the last. After climbing up and over the Hospital Esker in St. Croix Falls, I raced towards the western terminus, less than a mile away now as the sun set alongside me. I fled down rock staircases slick with ice and over snow packed smooth as glass from countless visitor footsteps. I rounded the last corner and saw my destination as the day’s light waned.

I was done with my hike. I had reached the end, the small plaque on a rock.

It was strange to have reached my destination. All of a sudden, there it was: the finality of what has been on my mind for so long. The Ice Age Trail had now been thru-hiked in winter.

The next day, I got a ride to the suburbs of Chicago to stay with friends. The Wisconsin’s small town back roads stood in stark contrast to dense urban sprawl I now found myself in. I went from hiking 20 miles per day through snow, sleet, and ice to lounging on a couch, reading all day. Gone was the exciting unknown of the hike and in its place an eerie feeling of displacement in a bustling society.

Ice Age Trail Alliance, Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Mike Summers Winter 2017 thru-hike
The dreaded fourth season reveals a serene beauty. It was a beautiful day for a hike. Photo by Mike Summers.

Brief lines of questioning about my walk were typically summed up as follows:

“How was the hike?”

“It was great! The people were so nice. It was so fun.”

End of inquiry.

But how can that suffice? The beauty I saw, the miracles of trail magic, the peace and quiet I found, and the people I met…all lost in translation.
  • Miles: 1077 (+17 extra)
  • Days: 58
  • Off days: 5
  • Nights outside: 33
  • Nights inside: 25
  • Avg. MPD on hiking days: 20.3
  • Total $ spent on hike: 1652.07 
  • $/mi: 1.53 
  • $/day: 28.41

This article first appeared in Mammoth Tales, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Summer 2017