A Force of Nature Leads the Way

Ice Age Trail Alliance, Ice Age National Scenic Trail, A Force of Nature, REI Corporate Partner, Pat Witkowski

A Force of Nature: Pat Witkowski. Photo by Joanne Ellarson.

In August I ran 302 miles. At least half of those miles were on trails, many of them on the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Over the 45 hours that I spent on my feet covering ground, strengthening my body and conditioning my mind, my thoughts often wandered toward the very concept of trails. Carved out of the forest and prairies, trails are not static, one-time projects. They are living, breathing entities needing to be maintained and loved, long after they are created.

To be on a trail feels like an absolute immersion in nature. When in fact, we are traveling on a path, through the woods, across the prairie, each mile cut and shaped by human hands. Most trails are forged by volunteers driven to make and maintain them for the greater good of the trail community and nature enthusiasts. A few weeks ago I was introduced to one of the Ice Age Trail Alliance’s most active leaders in trail building and maintenance. Pat Witkowski, of the Waukesha-Milwaukee Chapter, has invested herself in the trail life for nearly 15 years.

Ice Age Trail Alliance, Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Force of Nature, REI, Pat Witkowski

Pat Witkowski laughingly poses for a picture in her favorite attire – trailbuilding garb displaying the evidence of her labor at the Walla Hi MSC Project. Photo by Joanne Ellarson.

In 2002, during a group trail run at Lapham Peak in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, the trail intersected the Ice Age Trail. Pat asked her fellow runners where that trail went. She was warned: that the trail was not a loop and if she took it, she’d never come back. Which is exactly what happened. Pat became so enthralled by the vastness and natural wonder of the Ice Age Trail, that she launched herself onto it and she is still captivated by it.

Growing up on a diversified cattle farm in Vernon County, Pat attended a one-room schoolhouse and went to on to compete collegiately in the 1-mile and 2-mile track events at UW-Oshkosh. She channeled her athletic passions into her career as an elementary physical education teacher in Oconomowoc. Pat’s natural leadership and zealous sense of initiative was honed and fine-tuned during her years in public education.

After getting involved as a volunteer with her local Ice Age Trail Alliance chapter, Pat was drawn to the diverse terrain and wide-open space to explore. She began section hiking the Trail in 2004 and completed every last mile on foot in a little over a year, becoming the 23rd person to complete the thousand-mile endeavor. This was an aggressive achievement for a full-time teacher and mother of four. The only logistical support she had was from her family, otherwise, Pat was alone on the trail. As an ultra-runner and mother of two small children I was impressed by Pat’s willingness to forge a new path and unusual adventure for herself. Her quick optimism and the way she laughed off the adversity she met along the way showed me the drive to immerse ourselves in nature transcends gender and generations.

REI, in July of 2017, launched a comprehensive effort to advance gender equality in the outdoors, with the goal of encouraging its members to embrace the outdoors as the “world’s largest playing field.” Pat demonstrates what gender equality in the outdoors looks like when a woman commits to getting outside, being involved, and pursuing a new found passion with boundless spirit. Positive role models like Pat inspire us to follow her footsteps into natural, outdoor spaces so we, too, can explore the most-wild versions of ourselves.

In 2008, Pat earned her Ice Age Trail Alliance Mobile Skills Crew Leader certification. This enabled her to take on new leadership roles managing maintenance and creating new sections of trail. Pat and her crews build boardwalks, natural retaining walls, eradicate invasive species, and lay down hundreds of feet of new tread. Pat’s work has been acknowledged nationally by the National Park Service. In 2015 she was awarded the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award for completing 4,000 hours of volunteer service. This year the Ice Age Trail Alliance presented Pat with the highest honor, the Spirit Stick Award, a traveling trophy awarded to one inspiring, stand-out volunteer each year.

Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Ice Age Trail Alliance, Force of Nature, REI corporate partner

Pat Witkowski handily demonstrates the finer points of the four-step tread construction process to her crew. Photo by Dave Caliebe.

Ice Age Trail Alliance, Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Force of Nature, REI Corporate Partner

Pat takes a step back to survey her work and provide a teaching moment. Photo by Dave Caliebe.

My running often takes me through the steep, wooded trails and pristine prairies of the Devil’s Lake Segment where I regularly experience the awe of the work it takes to maintain these public spaces. Every log I leap over will be cleared by a volunteer team and all of the neatly trimmed grass underfoot has been mowed by a trail community member. The health and life of the Ice Age Trail relies on the dedication and skills of volunteers like Pat. Not only does she spend time behind a DR mower, she also established a group called the Blazin’ Babes who are responsible for keeping the iconic yellow Ice Age Trail blazes fresh on trees and posts, as well as keeping trail signage current. This spunky group of women travels around the state hiking segments of the Trail in their spirited volunteer effort.

As women, we are a minority in the trail community. To be alone in the woods hiking, running, or improving the trails, is a relatively new frontier, one we must continue to forge. Our male comrades have been hiking vast distances, building trails, and running wild through the forest alone for millennia – and we have revered them for their brawny efforts. Now it’s time for women of all ages to fire up our chain saws, lace up our hiking boots and take the forest by storm to soak in the deep fulfilment the trail has to offer. Women like Pat show us there are no boundaries for our adventurous ambitions. When I marveled at the amount of hard work she puts into the Ice Age Trail she said I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun.

Jonnah Perkins is a competitive ultra distance trail runner and lives in Blue Mounds, WI with her husband and two small children. She also helps manage her family’s large CSA farm, Vermont Valley Community Farm, LLC. Read more of her stories about life and running at https://theultrafarmer.com/