Harrison Hills quietly deliver a scary-good time

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It seems the newest big thing in the theater is “A Quiet Place,” a film revolving around horrifying arachnid-like beings, their attraction to sound, and a bunch of actors who, needless to say, keep it zipped as much as possible.

No thanks – I’ll just head out to the silent North Woods to be surrounded by wolves when I need entertainment.

That’s only a slight exaggeration.  A surprise early-April snowstorm sent hiking buddy Chris Sadler and me  to the Alta Junction and Harrison Hills segments of the Ice Age Trail, a little north and east of Merrill. The IAT guidebook mentions a thriving pack of wolves inhabiting the Harrison Hills, and we may have seen evidence of them shortly after starting our hike on the Alta Junction segment.

That starts on Lincoln County Highway J about six miles east of Irma, which is so small it doesn’t even have a population listed on Wikipedia.  The segment mostly follows an old railroad grade along the North Branch of the Prairie River.

But even getting there was an adventure.

We had already dropped off one vehicle at our northern endpoint on Turtle Lake Road and parked at a plowed pile of snow at Turtle Lake’s intersection with Beaver Trail Road. Both were dirt roads, with only a few houses at the south end of Turtle Lake and our targeted IAT parking lot about a quarter-mile farther than the plow had gone.

We couldn’t access the parking lot because snow was heaped across its entrance, with plenty more on the road itself except where a truck or two had apparently passed through.

Even turning around would probably have been impossible, which I learned when I pulled slightly off- center and found myself in a tire-spinning mess. Fortunately, I was able to rock the four-wheel drive Subaru back and forth enough to pull back into the middle, and we drove both cars in reverse back to the furthest extent of the plowing, leaving the Subaru there.

It was much the same at the starting end of our journey, so we drove a short distance down County J and parked on a short, dead-end side road.

That was closer to the end of the Alta Junction segment anyway, so we hopped on it shortly before 10 a.m. and started walking.

The early part of the segment was relatively easy for snowshoeing. The deep, powdery snow brought some slippery moments, especially on steeper inclines or declines. Those, however, were few, even on the initial section of hummocky land that eventually gave way to a more consistent path along the old rail grade.

We saw a few deer tracks here and there, but near the spur to the parking lot, we saw a patch of churned-up snow that looked like it had hosted a convention. Discussing the tracks there, I remembered reading about the Harrison Hills wolves and mentioned it to Chris.

Most of the tracks were fairly indistinct in the deep snow, but we found a set on a relatively crusty patch that confirmed print sizes bigger than those of most dogs. We had noted claw imprints in many of the deeper tracks,  and the large, almost diamond-shaped prints on the crust were enough to convince us we were seeing wolf tracks.

I took a picture and compared it with online photos of wolf tracks, and I’m fairly certain we were seeing evidence of a small pack. According to a Department of Natural Resources report, wolves in the northern Wisconsin area tend to average 3.6 to 3.8 animals per pack and have a range somewhere in the neighborhood of 55 square miles.

We were no more afraid of wolves appearing than of a movie starting up, so we moved on.  Our biggest concern was being able to travel our planned 5.2-mile route and still have time for a late lunch and a beer before I got back into Point early enough for an evening family outing.

Continuing toward the old junction, where two rail lines once joined at the village of Dunston (now a ghost town), we chugged along the trail, which mostly paralleled the open water of the small but doubtless cold North Branch.

Approaching the old Alta Junction about 11:10, we were confident we’d be able to knock off the initial four miles of the Harrison Hills segment in a reasonable time.

That was a miscalculation.

The first part, also winding along the pleasant North Branch, had a smooth, 15-inch deep path carved into the snow by what must have been some kind of sled, packed further by previous snowshoers. Soon, though, we came to the end of that path where the sled and snowshoers apparently turned back and the path turned uphill.

Although we weren’t going that far, this trail segment eventually goes to Lookout Mountain, the highest point on the IAT (1,920 feet).

Over the next 90 minutes or so, we got a great workout and paused frequently just to enjoy the bright sunlight, rich blue sky, unblemished fields of white, thickly forested undulations of the hills and – most of all – the almost total silence.  No wolves in sight, but no terrifying creatures following the sounds of our conversation, either.

Our much-slower progress, however, did frighten us.  A quick calculation showed we might not finish the stretch until at least 3 p.m.  That could have meant – gasp! – no time for a post-hike beer before I had to get home.

So, using our trusty GPS apps, we determined when we were close enough to Turtle Lake Road to abandon the trail and hike out to the more direct and plowed route back to the car. That was shortly before 1 p.m., putting us at the Subaru and then in Merrill by 2 p.m.

After a quick lunch at the nostalgic Chip’s Hamburgers, one of a very few remaining outlets for a once-national chain, we headed to the Sawmill Brewing Co.  That has become something of a planning fulcrum for us, as it’s not too far from several good IAT starting and ending points.

At the Sawmill, we toasted our wisdom for leaving almost 40 percent of our day’s five-mile hiking goal undone.  As some guy once said in another kinda-scary movie: we’ll be back.

*****

This post originally appeared in the April 13, 2018, edition of The Portage County Gazette.

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