By Lou Ann Novak, Guest Writer and Thousand-Miler
My Ice Age National Scenic Trail experience began in April 2016. I knew nothing about the Ice Age Trail then. I had seen the yellow blazes, but didn’t know what they meant. One day out of curiosity, I searched for ‘Ice Age Trail’ on the Internet.
From the first, I was amazed at how each step seemed to leave the urban world behind. I thought how pleasant it would be to explore a few segments, but I really wasn’t hooked (yet). I bought the IAT Guidebook and Atlas. I enjoyed the mental exercise of planning my hikes. I would review the Guidebook and then map out my route. Since I was a solo hiker, I parked the car, biked one way on public roads and then walked the Trail back to my car.
That spring, my travel buddy of many years was seriously ill and wasn’t able to enjoy the outdoors with me. More and more I found myself thinking, “It’s a nice day. I should get some fresh air. What part of that Trail haven’t I seen?” Then I would be off. As a person dealing with another’s illness, I found the Trail a great place to recharge my batteries. It was a world perfect and apart from the issues that were weighing on my heart but over which I had no control. That June, my friend died. I kept walking. I walked to escape. I walked to fight depression. I walked to grieve.
I don’t know when it happened, but soon hiking the Trail became spiritual for me. I began to learn the history of the Ice Age Trail and to understand the majestic forces that carved the landscape. Here in this erratic or on that esker, I saw eternity compressed into a single moment. I would look at my footprints and wonder who had walked this Trail before me? Who would walk this Trail after me? How did my passage leave an impression of me, even in the smallest way?
It is a transcending experience to stand apart from yourself and watch as you become part of a greater whole. I’m struggling with the right words here, but somehow, on the Trail, I was walking to a place of continuity and connection. I started talking to the chipmunks, squirrels and deer. When I admitted this online, a fellow hiker responded, “It’s only polite to say hello when you are walking through someone’s home.”
The only real problem I encountered in 2016 was a bad arthritis flare in my knees that occurred after hiking at Devil’s Lake in August. My doctor had me stay away from hiking for several weeks until the inflammation went down. Then I was back on the Trail. That first year I hiked from April until the gun deer hunting season in November. I hiked 456 miles, mostly in southern Wisconsin.
After taking the winter off, I was back on the Trail in May 2017. The second year I started doing hikes in northern Wisconsin, which required some new preparations. After missing a few critical turns, I invested in the Guthook Guides IAT app. I learned to treat my clothes with Permethrin. I also bought a head net, trekking poles, and better hiking shoes that wouldn’t stay wet all day.
In this second year, I started using Trail Angels for shuttles. At first I didn’t want to “bother” anyone but soon realized I couldn’t complete this Trail alone. Everyone was gracious and wonderfully supportive. I would say that the defining aspect of my second year hiking was learning it was okay to ask for help. I hiked until the end of October and added 483 miles. I was a much more confident hiker. I understood my limitations and had learned to stay strong and resourceful.
My third year on the Trail started in May 2018. It was an unusually late and wet spring, so for the first month I focused on Connecting Routes. By the time June rolled around, I was in Barron County hiking my way to a Western Terminus completion. I stayed at hotels in the northwestern part of the Trail to have some Trail luxury and avoid dealing with food in bear country. I did enjoy seeing two more black bear (total of three on my hike) before the journey’s end.
I completed my last segment, Indian Lake, as a solo hiker on August 3, 2018. It was great to have the sounds and sights of the woods as my companions as I completed this final Thousand-Miler hike. My hike was 1,137 miles. I hiked 80% of the Trail solo. My biggest expense was gasoline since I only hiked about 8 miles a day – shorter daily distances mean more trips and more days hiking.
I started hiking the IAT at age 60, having never before hiked in my life. It took some courage to start my journey, and I couldn’t have completed it without help from many others. My IAT completion belongs to those people… the generous landowners, the Trail volunteers, the Trail Angels, IATA staff, and my new family on the Facebook Thousand Miler WannaBes site. It fills my heart with joy to be in such great company.
From the first, I was awed by the history of the glacial landscape and the natural forces that created such beauty. I feel privileged to be a small part of that history. Now I begin to understand that the most important history is the history we are making today. As stewards of this great resource, we choose to support the IAT experience and preserve this beauty for future generations.
About the Author
Lou Ann Novak is a lifelong Wisconsin resident. In August 2018 she completed a segment hike of the Ice Age Trail. Lou Ann emphasizes that for her the ultimate trail magic of her experience was “discovering the generosity of spirit and unfailing support of my new friends in the Ice Age Trail community.”