Jim Staudacher Looks Back: 40 Years After the First Thru-hike

Ice Age Trail, Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Ice Age Trail Alliance, James Staudacher, first thru-hiker on the IAT, 40th Anniversary of thru-hike

Trail blazer, James (Jim) Staudacher, the first person to thru-hike the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Here he is along the Ice Age Trail in the Chequamegon National Forest, Wisconsin, July 1979. Photo courtesy of Jim Staudacher.

Article by guest writer, Bill Polacheck

For James (Jim) Staudacher, the inspiration for the journey of a lifetime came from the very first Ice Age Trail Guidebook, On the Trail of the Ice Age, written by Congressman Henry Reuss and published by the Milwaukee Journal in 1976. The guidebook captured the imagination of then 17-year-old Jim and he began researching the geography of the ice age in Wisconsin.

Two years later, he took a summer backpacking trip to Isle Royale National Park and decided that he wanted to be the first person to walk the entire Ice Age Trail route.

“I wanted to achieve this as a personal rite of passage but also to promote the sport of hiking which was just becoming popular in the 1970s,” recalls Jim. The first step to realizing his dream involved contacting Reuss’ office to secure permission. “I was a nervous 19-year-old on that fall day in 1978 when I met Rep. Reuss at his Milwaukee office,” says Jim. “He received me graciously and asked me why I wanted to hike the trail and why I thought I could succeed in such a physically demanding endeavor. I answered awkwardly, and probably less coherently than I wanted to, but my enthusiasm was unmistakable.”

A week after the meeting, Reuss contacted Jim and gave him permission to attempt the first complete hike of the trail in the summer of 1979. He also assigned one of his staff members, Sarah Sykes, to assist with details of trip planning. Sarah and Jim decided that he would document and informally survey the existing route of the trail, make suggestions to improve the route, and providing descriptions of the ice age features found along the trail. Reuss’ office would provide maps and postage for re-supply packages as well as reimbursement for long-distance phone calls.

Ice Age Trail Alliance, Ice Age National Scenic Trail, James Staudacher, First thru-hiker, 40th Anniversary of first thru-hike

Campsite along Ice Age Trail in Point Beach State Forest, Wisconsin.  May 1979. The tent certainly added to Jim’s pack weight. Photo courtesy of Jim Staudacher.

Jim accepted the challenge and on May 14, 1979, the 20-year-old drove from his suburban Milwaukee home up to Sturgeon Bay, signed in on the trailhead ledger, and began his adventure. He set off following tentative routes that he changed as he traveled, all the while knowing he had to be back by August to start his junior year at Marquette University. Not only did he not have the benefit of a GPS system, but his clothing was also low tech. Except for a new Gore-Tex parka, he was outfitted with what he could find in his closet– wool shirts, blue jeans, cargo pants, and heavy hiking boots. Without the benefit of modern water filters, Jim struggled to find drinkable water and when he did he carried as much as he could. That water, along with food, pushed the weight of his pack up to 45 pounds. Fortunately, Jim wrestled in high school and quickly adjusted to the heavy load.

He re-supplied his food rations at small-town post offices along the way. Sarah communicated with Jim via postal service and payphone calls and mailed the food so that it would arrive just in time. Since he was on a college student’s budget, Jim’s food consisted of grocery store basics like mac and cheese, Pop-Tarts, granola bars, and Rice-A-Roni.

Adding to his pack weight was his SLR camera which he describes as a “monster” compared to today’s cell phone cameras. And where today he might have taken thousands of digital photos, back then he only took about a hundred and many of those shots are blurry.

Some of those blurry shots include pictures of a tornado he spotted after a line of storms blew through west of Madison near Cross Plains. Jim says he wasn’t afraid at the time.

“Maybe I was naive but I didn’t feel that vulnerable,” he recalls.

Jim with his 45-lb pack surveying the glacial sand deposit, Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest near New Fane, Wisconsin, May 1979. Photo courtesy of Jim Staudacher.

He did experience fear, however, about 130 miles north of Cross Plains at his campsite east of Stevens Point in the Kronenwetter swamp. Hot, tired, wet and covered with wood ticks, he decided to build a fire in order to fling the ticks into the flames. As he scraped the ticks with a knife, four to five wild dogs appeared and immediately approached him. The leader of the pack bared his teeth and tried to grab his ankle. In fear of his life, Jim defended himself with a piece of firewood left behind by hunters and ended up killing the alpha male. At that point, the rest of the pack retreated.

“I pitched his broken body far into the swampy woods, not wanting the other dogs to return,” Jim says. “I spent that long night sitting by a huge fire, dirty, scared, angry, and knowing that the next morning I had to pack up and walk through the very swamp from whence they came.”

One of the greatest tasks Jim faced was measuring the total length of the trail. The guidebook estimated 600 miles but he logged 1,006 miles on his hike. About 40% of those miles were on the road, although back then many of the gravel roads were barely distinguishable from the trail itself. He hiked through parks, county forest land, and miles of abandoned railroad tracks. In Waukesha and Washington Counties, the trail guided him through rows of brush and woods in the midst of open farmland. (Today, he notes, the trail has been rerouted in these areas due to the transition to fence-to-fence farming as well as urban sprawl.)

Averaging 15-20 miles per day, Jim finished his solo hike on July 29 in Interstate State Park in Taylor Falls, Minnesota. Jim still has slides of his hike as well as his journals, topographic maps, backpack, and leather boots. But more than that, he has his memories of the summer of ‘79.

“I was looking for adventure, and I found it,” Jim muses. “It set me up for the rest of my life.”

Bill Polacheck is a teacher and writer living in the Milwaukee area. An avid environmentalist, he enjoys hiking, biking, and kayaking, and challenges himself to find beauty in the world around him on a daily basis. Follow him on Instagram @bill.polacheck.