National trails: Too much to know, too little time to know them

This piece originally appeared in the Feb. 2, 2017, issue of the Portage County Gazette. Every now and then, I look for updates on Summers, but can find no information on his planned effort to do all the national trails — or any info at all.

Ice Age Trail winter thru-hiker Mike Summers passed through Portage County last week, and his name is one we might want to keep an eye out for.

The North Carolina native, by way of Chicago and Portland, is on a two-month foray through Wisconsin to practice winter camping.  He’s prepping for a two-and-a-half year, 20,000-mile hike on our National Scenic Trails, so he wants to learn all he can about handling winter weather.

That’s admirable enough, but it was one of his Facebook videos that really made me understand his commitment to the task: fording the Prairie River in Lincoln County sometime early this week.

Barefoot, of course.

“This is horrible!” he’s laughing in his video, but with obvious discomfort as he tilts his iPhone up from a shot of his feet toward the far shore.  “Please be closer.”

Hit the trails while you can

Yeah, I know.  I used a variation of that subhead last week. But it’s no less true for trails than slopes, as Summers well knows.

There are 11 National Scenic Trails (including the Ice Age) in the National Trail System, a 50,000-mile-plus marvel that is probably not going to expand much under the current administration.  It also includes National Historic Trails, National Connecting and Side Trails, and the National Geologic Trail.

Good thing we’ve got folks like Mike out there to tell us about them if we can’t see them all ourselves.  I drove up to the village of Polar and the Kettlebowl Segment of the IAT to meet him last week.

He began at the IAT’s eastern terminus in Potawatomi StatePark,  outside Sturgeon Bay, on Dec. 21. By Jan. 20, he’d hit the halfway point, on the Mecan River Segment of the 1,200-mile trail, not far from Coloma in Waushara County.

Mike has a web site (improbablebutpossible.com) where he blogs every 10 days or so. But he’s easier to keep up with through Facebook. 

By the time I discovered his trip, I’d already committed to seeing as much of the IAT as possible in the next couple of years, but as a “section hiker,” as they’re known.

As much as anything, I suppose, I wanted a bit of Mike’s adventuresome spirit to rub off on me, so I arranged to meet him near Antigo and learn more about his trip, plus walk a little myself.

My friend Chris Sadler came along to meet Summers at the southern trailhead of IAT’s Kettlebowl Segment, a 9.9-mile stretch that starts three miles east-northeast of Polar and heads through the woods toward the Kettlebowl Ski Area in Langlade County.

We’d invited Mike to lunch, but knew he wanted to make an overnight stay in the “Hillbilly Hilton,” an old root cellar converted to a hiker’s shelter at a defunct lumber camp some 13 miles from our meeting place.

Mike said he’d be just as happy to try sheltering near the ski area, so we headed back toward El Tequila restaurant in Antigo.

We told him to eat whatever he wanted – thru-hikers are famous for massive appetites to fuel their perambulations. Despite our encouragement, Mike only ate a regular-sized meal, which at El Tequila is still substantial (and very tasty). 

Between bites, our discussion ranged widely, as it had on our drive – his sponsors (seven companies), foot care, the definition of “hard-core rock” as opposed to “heavy metal” (he once toured with a band), and his background and plans. 

He said his cross-country trek would begin next New Year’s Day in Key West, ending in Washington, on the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail.

Mike envisions passage through 30 states and four Canadian provinces, hitting virtually every corner of the Lower 48, Including Maine, Southern California, and the Pacific Ocean near Olympic National Park. 

His web site provides many details, including a massive initial spreadsheet of planned segments, so it’s worth a visit.

Those segments include many roads – just as the IAT is still made up of many paved portions – because there’s no continuous off-road route. 

Despite Mike’s willingness to hang out and visit, we sensed his desire to be on the trail. He admitted that he enjoyed his solitude, especially being away from national politics and general strife, so we headed back with the intent of accompanying him partway down the Kettlebowl Segment.

Both Chris and I needed the outdoor time as well, so off we went.

If you go, consider snowshoes – and Timber Haven

Like true greenhorns, neither Chris nor I had snowshoes. I’d read Mike’s earlier accounts of well-trodden paths throughout the southern half of his trip, and I wrongly assumed we might see the same on the Kettlebowl.

Bad assumption.  When we parked at a rural cemetery not far from the trailhead, Mike noted that we might be “postholing,” or walking in deep holes caused by our boots. 

He, of course, had a fine pair of sponsor-provided snowshoes and offered to break trail for us, but after just a few yards of laughing our way through knee-deep snow, we realized we’d hold him up.

Mike was probably ready for a more solitary experience, having spent the night indoors courtesy of a “trail angel,” or one of many hikers and hiking supporters found near all major national trails who are willing to offer a meal, a floor or couch to sleep on, and other assistance.

He told us he’d spent about half of his first month with such accommodations, but he clearly was enjoying his outdoor quiet time even more.

We waved him on while we took our time slogging down a half-mile path that would allow us to double back on the road to the car.

It was a grand experience negotiating the trail where Mike had clearly glided across the crusty snow. Chris and I could slide, at best, no more than three or four bowlegged, gingerly taken steps forward before breaking through the surface to dig another posthole.

But the sun had come out, giving us sharp view through the trees to the foundation of an old sheep barn. The large structure had a mini-forest growing up into the space once occupied by a long-gone roof.

We dawdled, talking and just listening to trees creaking and squawking in the wind, enjoying it enough to plan future snowshoe and cross-country skiing jaunts.

First, though, we had to visit the Timber Haven in Polar, a tavern where we stopped to let Summers stock up on water and whose bartender, Brandon, we had promised to come back for a brew.

Brandon really knew his beer and told us IAT hikers were most welcome guests (they can sleep out back if need be).  We were having so much fun that after we left, we stopped for a fish fry at the Polonia Café before calling it a day.

It was a day I really needed, even if outdoor time was a smaller part.  Hearing about Mike’s adventures and planning others was like tortilla soup for the alma (that’s soul in Spanish).

Because of my unscheduled stops without express permission, I got in a little trouble with my wife.  And I just thought I’d left Polar behind; things were a little frosty until the following morning.

I’d say it was worth it, but I’m not ready to rely on tents or the couches of trail angels just yet.

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