Dedication of landowners gives life to trails

author’s note: this is a very slightly edited version (for clarity) of my original column from Nov. 2017 in the Portage County Gazette. Sadly, Bob Ellingson passed away in February 2020, but I hope this column helps commemorate him properly in some small way. (Top photo by Jean Klein)

Nobody has to look far to find evidence of a world gone mad. When the craziness drives us outside, though, it’s good to remember that there are folks like Portage County’s Bob Ellingson who allow and encourage the natural experiences that often keep us sane.

Bob is one of the many faces behind the Ice Age Trail, an 1,100-mile miracle that exists because of the hard work of volunteers, a small but dedicated staff at the Ice Age Trail Alliance, and many others.  Businesses, politicians and promoters have all played important roles in the formation of this trail, which isn’t yet finished as a path through field and forest.

But no role is more important than that of landowners like Bob.

While much of the trail passes through public land (such as national forests or state parks) and connecting roads still join many of those public pieces to the rest of the trail, the private land on which hikers enjoy the IAT is only available when landowners make it so.

I’ve completed about 150 miles of the trail, and almost all of it has been in 2017, after I decided in February that I wanted to hike the entire thing. Interestingly enough, on my very first purposeful Ice Age outing after making that decision, I also made my first wrong turn.

Or maybe it was the right one.  It happened to be just a couple of hundred yards from Bob’s house, although I didn’t know it at the time.

I wrote about that hike in March, noting that a friend and I turned south on County Z as we came out of the woods southeast of the New Hope Pines State Natural Area. As I now recall, we actually passed Bob’s house before realizing we were heading in the wrong direction, so we did an about-face and got back to where we were supposed to be.

That was back up the road along the northern border of Bob’s farm, where the trail picks up off of Z once more. There, a grass parking lot on Bob’s land lies on the edge of more woods, part of an Ellingson heritage that dates back to the 1850s.

ellingson wetlands 2

Bob remembers reading about my wrong turn and recognizing where it occurred. I got to meet Bob in October through the efforts of Jean Klein, a member of the trail alliance, who arranged for us to have a Friday afternoon chat at Bob’s house.

Bob’s own father, born in 1901, was 3 years old when the house was built. Bob’s grandparents took over the land from an Ellingson relative who received the land from the federal government in 1858, just 10 years after the formation of the state of Wisconsin.

It’s a rare treat when staying inside to hear stories is as much fun as walking through the woods. That’s what the visit with Bob was – an excellent opportunity to see the land from the landowner’s perspective, to hear the history of several generations tied to a piece of earth that a hiker is fortunate to pass over once.

 Bob told us of the 20-mile sleigh trips to haul bricks for building the house during a time when that distance was easily a daylong trek, of Bob’s father (the youngest of eight family siblings) taking over the farm when his own father died during the flu pandemic of World War I, and of family members returning to the farmhouse during tough Depression-era times.

Bob also talked about his education at Central State Teacher’s College – now the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point – where he studied education and conservation, including classes with Fred Schmeeckle.  In addition to being the namesake for our well-known nature reserve in Stevens Point, Schmeeckle also arranged for his charges to visit Aldo Leopold in Madison, Bob noted.

After serving in the Army during the Korean conflict and teaching for a short time in Michigan, Bob and his wife, Bev, moved to Madison, where Bob worked in teacher training for more than four decades.  After retiring in the 1990s, he returned home to take over the farm, which his father and mother ran until their deaths at the age of 91 and 96, respectively.

He now rents out the productive part of his land, but is proud to leave part of it committed to the trail. He wishes more of his fellow citizens would allow access as he and other area landowners have, but understands that much of it may have to do with ways that trail organizers approached the issue in the county during the 1980s, when they may have been a little too pushy with some landowners.

Although I only got to visit with Bob for a little less than two hours, it would be easy to fill pages with his stories. One could fill more with praise for his enthusiasm for the Ice Age Trail, his love of nature and his dedication to ideals of conservation.

“This is what we say in church. This is what we say to one another,” he explains.  “It’s the whole philosophy of the Department of Natural Resources with the state parks and the forests and hiking trails.

ellingson wetlands

 “It’s not the individual’s land forever. You can only use it for a while.”

So why not share it, he asks?  Good question.

A few days after our visit, I went with another friend for a couple of hours along that same stretch of trail, just to revisit and take a closer look at some of the favorite portions of his land Bob had pointed out on a map.

This time there were no wrong turns – just a much deeper appreciation for people like Bob Ellingson, who continue to do what they believe is the right thing for everybody.

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