Hiking Lodi in winter? Yes, peas

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Never put off until better weather a hike that’s perfectly wonderful today.

That was my experience for the Lodi Marsh and Eastern Lodi Marsh segments of Wisconsin’s 1,120-mile Ice Age Trail. When planning my next IAT excursion, I frequently deliberate over whether summer’s flowering or fall color increase a segment’s appeal. But this past Saturday, I decided it was simply time to go enjoy the Lodi area despite the chance of a snowstorm.

Along with frequent hiking buddy Chris Sadler, I already had walked roughly 12 miles on three segments from Lodi north to Gibraltar Rock (a beloved overlook)  and the Merrimac ferry on the Wisconsin. We agreed it was a favorite hike, in no small part because we enjoyed Lodi so much.

No effort was needed to talk Chris into returning.  Lodi has hovered around 3,050 inhabitants for a decade, meaning its small-city charms have not been crowded out by growth despite being part of the Madison Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Known for being the home of Susie the Duck, Lodi is a pleasant community in a beautiful setting along Spring Creek in the Lodi Valley. Most of the Eastern Lodi Marsh segment is in the hills above and east of the creek, but the southernmost stretches run near the creek in prairie above the marshes of a state natural area.

First we had to get in a .7-mile stretch on the northwest side of town. It runs along a ridge between the city’s middle and high schools and its golf course, and because we had skipped it on our earlier trip, we parked briefly at the middle school and climbed up the hill behind it to join the trail.

Although much of the view is of modern suburban tract housing from above at a distance, the hilly setting and the playing fields of both school grounds lend a nostalgic air to a walk in the trees and restored prairie high above both schools.  There’s always a thrill about walking in woods behind a school that feels a little like playing hooky, regardless of one’s age or the day of the week.

We talked, in fact, of Chris’ days as a cross-country runner in high school, partly because we surmised that the wandering paths off of the Ice Age were used by the local teams. Our conversation meandered as much – from high school reunions to how wonderful our spouses were for letting us hike and, as always, support local economies afterward.

Heading west, we crossed a 150-foot long footbridge that, according to the trail guide, is the largest human-made structure on the IAT.  Constructed of black locust and based on a 16th century Chinese “rainbow bridge,” it crosses a ravine between the two schools and is a traditional centerpiece of the high school’s annual graduation.

Because this section is essentially a spur, we then went to its eastern end where it rejoins the main trail before doubling back to the parking lot and heading downtown to start the main event.

Area’s beauty makes staying on track easy     

The Eastern Lodi Marsh Segment starts downtown in Veterans Park on the creek and moves south for four-tenths of a mile along Highway 113 from aptly-named Pleasant Street to a trailhead where we joined the IAT’s earthen “tread” and headed through the hills.

The tread first passes through land owned by the Lodi Canning Co., a century-old local business that, according to the company, is the last single-plant, privately owned cannery in the state. The third generation of Lodi’s Goeres family is running the firm, which notes that corporate citizenship and the “public spirit” are important values for the company.

Its strong backing of parks is obvious from both its IAT support and the family’s namesake Goeres Park along Spring Creek on the eastern side of town. There, a pool, ball fields, courts, and a garden walking path in an idyllic setting impressed us when we drove by it later on in the day.

Goeres Park is the largest in the city, but the cannery notes that it proudly supports all, including the tiny one where the creek runs under Main Street between downtown businesses. There, a mallard has laid its eggs in a masonry basket near the water every year since 1948, when the police chief’s daughter named the town’s first in a series of “Susies.”

Before heading to the trail, we also went to the cannery itself, taking pictures of its historic buildings near an old stone railroad bridge over a highway leading west out of town. This was partly due to insufficient signage and my flawed memory, but also because I wanted to see the cannery.

Finally on the tread, we skirted a farm and passed under a second near-ancient railroad bridge for tracks that ran next to another creek. It had been lightly snowing virtually since we parked downtown and would not stop for the remainder of the afternoon, but the setting was so idyllic that snow only made it better.

We passed a large, sloping field with an interesting on-ground irrigation system that made Chris wonder whether beans might be planted there. Turns out it was probably peas, as the cannery essentially packs only corn and peas under its “Lodi’s Idol” brand.

This was another much-needed break from work-week concerns. Winding through woods, fields, prairie and oak savanna, we missed warm-weather flowers but still enjoyed the landscape-restoration efforts of volunteers over the years. In fact, we ran into an energetic bunch of them from Dane County’s Ice Age Trail Alliance chapter in the woods where the trail had been rerouted to minimize erosion.

There we had a lively conversation and met several folks who were retired or near-retired clearing an area of wood, which gave them fuel for a nice little bonfire where they were taking a cookie break. We thanked them as profusely for their great work on the trail.

Oaks and folks contribute to fine day

In fact, a highlight of the day’s trip was the number of friendly folks we met, including Robin the dog owner, who had a couple of large ones (a Rottweiler and a Lab) on the icy slopes but seemed to be negotiating the trail even better than we were.  She shared advice on potential lunch spots and asked questions about our adventures, then warned us of slippery spots coming up.

That was, in essence, most of the 5-mile total of both segments. We had brought ice spikes but decided against them, which caused us to slow down a bit, taking shorter steps and occasionally straddling the path for safety. Chris dubbed our distance “penguin miles” to denote their degree of difficulty, but they were more delightful than draining.

We met a Madison resident who was from France, her Wisconsin hiking partner and their dog. We talked briefly with an older hiker with a nearby home who was the only one among all of us with spikes on, but he said he walks the trail every day.

The lack of clanking and crunching on our walk made up for our slower pace.  Given that our roughly 8-mile total was one of our shorter day-long hikes, it simply improved the outing.

A scenic highlight is “Dave’s View” looking west from the eastern segment, where a large U-shaped gap in the hills is presumed to have been carved out by a river flowing under a glacial cap.

The Lodi Marsh Segment, 1.8 miles that loops around the natural area west of Lodi-Springfield Road, was our final stretch.  It was mostly up-and-down walking through more restored prairie and oak savanna, accompanied by the frequent honking of geese on the creek or flying overhead in V-formations.

We finished our day at KD’s Bar and Grill north of Goeres Park, a place recommended by a convenience-store attendant, despite the fact the our new friend Robin had seemed to turn up her nose at it a bit. It’s a typical Wisconsin establishment – and that’s a compliment.

Unassuming and down-to-earth, but in a relatively new and sparkling log structure, KD’s offered standard bar fare and a solid but limited selection of tap beers, both craft and mainstream.

Our well tattooed waitress, professional and friendly, delivered Chris’ chicken Philly and my bacon-ranch-cheddar burger, both of which hit the spot. KD’s stood out a bit for its selection of fries – a half-dozen, including the chive fries we both chose.

Otherwise, it was a good-sized five-rail bar, plenty of tall tables and TVs with mostly Saturday-afternoon sports, country and pop music, and a solid crowd of locals (including a couple of families). We regretted the need to get back on the road before the sky got too dark and traffic too slow in the continuing snow.

All in all – why, yes, I know it’s corny – it was a day whose pace was most appeasing.

*****

This post originally appeared in the Feb. 9, 2018, edition of The Portage County Gazette.

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