We Portage County residents are blessed with supreme hiking opportunities all around us, but we’re not too proud to take advantage of the greatness of other nearby counties in a pinch.
My friend Andy Felt and I had been looking for a time when we could get out on a trail somewhere. After too many false starts, we recently found a Saturday afternoon when we could do so.
Such a limited time frame is when Marathon County’s Big Eau Pleine County Park comes in handy.
Located off of Wisconsin 153 southwest of Mosinee and jutting out for a couple of miles into the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir, the park takes about 40 minutes to reach from downtown Stevens Point. It easily provides an entire afternoon of hiking on its 12 miles of trails, parts of which are open to horseback riding.
It’s got even more miles for snow bikers (17 miles are groomed during the winter). At least those are the numbers that the parks department gives on its website, but it’s hard to figure out those mean when your feet hit the ground, you’re carrying a trail map, and you still can’t figure out quite which way to go.
That’s the beauty of hiking in an area that’s effectively a long, hilly peninsula. You can’t get lost, because eventually you’re going to run into the water on either side of the park and you’ll get your bearings to keep moving forward, unless you’re a heartless politician and lost your internal compass a long time ago.
I’d like to point out that I use the term “heartless” to distinguish between the good politicians and the rest of them. I’m sure that, just like horse manure can serve as fertilizer, politics do occasionally support useful growth. Even if they do run deeper and stink more.
I digress, though. This is supposed to be about hiking with Andy, a mathematician by trade, who probably could have figured out the fuzzy logic of the spaghetti-like trails if either of us were particularly concerned about where we were going.
That’s no joke. Pick up the park map at the headquarters on the north side of the park or download it from the parks department’s website, and you’ll see that the horse, hike and bike trails weave around and about and cross each other with enough frequency to remind you of just about any set of Christmas lights whose cords you’ve tried to untangle.
It’s an apt metaphor because like the cords, the different trails frequently parallel each other while remaining distinctly separate, except where they come together in a temporarily confusing knot.
We parked at the main lot across the park road from headquarters and headed south, waving at a couple of friendly riders on one of those parallel trails.
The paths are challenging but not overly so. The terrain is hilly and each set of trails contains multiple smaller loops that allow hikers to push ahead or move back.
A visitor could probably wander for days in the park before repeating any particular sequence of turns, and that’s a really nice way to hike when your goal is to wander rather than to arrive.
It was a much-needed day of aimless rambling, and our conversation took a lot of the same twists and turns: math and metaphor, different types of languages, university politics, a play Andy’s family attended, music, and literature.
I learned there’s a book called Zombies and Calculus. Although it sounds like the way political lobbyists do business, it’s apparently about how a math professor uses calculus to survive a zombie apocalypse.
Andy also does a great radio show for 90 FM, our local public station, on which he talks with folks from across the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus. He told a hilarious story of one interview that didn’t make it to the air and had to be redone, but if you want to hear the story, you’ll have to go hiking with him.
After all, this is a family paper, and I’ve already sullied it enough by mentioning legislators.
We saw many deer running around, as well as a couple of other hikers and a quartet of disc golfers (there’s a course on the western side of the park).
For a fall weekend afternoon, the park was quiet. Campers seemed to be at fewer than a dozen of the park’s 106 sites, which are divided into north and south units.
The south unit, at 60 sites the larger unit, still appears to be quieter and offer a slightly more rustic experience, although some of the campsites have electricity and both units have sewage dump stations. The north unit is closer to the swimming beach, playgrounds and disc-golf course.
The south unit is closer to two boat launches and the park’s horseshoe pits.
I’ve been meaning to try the park during camping season, which runs from May 1 to Oct. 31, but that will be for another trip.
Eventually we had to head back home, but not before catching sight of a young bald eagle on the banks of the Freeman Creek inlet to the reservoir. We pulled off the road and watched it for a while before heading out.
Eau Pleine means “full water,” and the afternoon had indeed been a full one. Still, that doesn’t mean I’ve had enough, so a return trip or seventeen may be in the future.
This post originally appeared in the Nov. 15, 2017, edition of The Portage County Gazette.