Moving forward tough while remembering the past

This column originally appeared in the June 1, 2017, issue of the Portage County Gazette. Most of it is about a day spent on the Ice Age Trail and its connecting routes, but my column often addressed more than one topic. In this case, it was the memory of a colleague I respected a great deal.

Even though last week was a good one, with a fun birthday party outdoors and more hiking on the Ice Age Trail, it was also a week of sorrow, as we lost another great friend of the outdoors.

I was home preparing for my daughter’s party when I heard the news, and it cast a pall over much of the weekend. Still, the party ended up being a fine one, with rambunctious 8-to-10-year-olds running around the yard, driveway and garage, which we had cleaned out for birthday cake and a place safe from the rain that threatened but never came.

Earlier in the week, I had finished 16 more miles of the Ice Age Trail.  As always, it was a wonderful time, made better with the company of a good friend.

We can never take such times for granted, because they always disappear too soon.

Putting good miles behind

Wednesday was one of those rare days that was almost completely free.  After a quick stop at the office, I headed to Waushara County to complete a few miles of Ice Age connecting road and some honest-to-goodness trail through the woods.

Parking just west of Deerfield on the shoulder of County Road O at about 10 a.m., I headed east and north on County O, 15th Road, and County AA toward Heffron. That stretch is 9.2 miles of pavement, and because I started about an hour later than planned, I had to hustle to reach Heffron, where I planned to meet my friend Chris Sadler, by 12:30 p.m.

Even though walking on roads sounds intuitively less appealing than traditional hiking trails, planners of the Ice Age have done a good job choosing attractive rural roads to connect trail segments.  These often are not the most direct, but almost every road segment I’ve traveled so far has been pleasant and quiet.

Cars have generally been few, and people outside their cars so rare that I have begun to lament the lack of folks to strike up conversations with. Wednesday was like previous days on connecting roads, with not even one soul in sight during my road miles.

I did, however, attract the attention of four fat guard geese, who arose and waddled toward me with aggressive honks as I passed one rural home.  I was on the other side of the road, and they were apparently more concerned with due diligence than crossing over to check me out, because they never came over the small berm separating the road from the barnyard they secured.

I took some pictures of a tree trunk turned into a yard-gnome home at one house, as well as a line of plaster garden animals at another, but that was the extent of “life” on the trail that morning.

Arriving exactly at 12:30 at the cemetery behind St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Heffron, just a few minutes before Chris, I rested on a small three-legged stool, ate a protein bar and rehydrated a bit.

Then we headed back south toward the Bohn Lake State Natural Area parking lot, the beginning of our 6.7 Ice Age miles together that day. We signed the trail log there and struck out shortly after 1 p.m., with the idea that we’d complete our miles around 4 p.m.

Bohn Lake has two trail segments – the standard path winding  through forest southwest of the lake before coming to the lake itself and skirting the northern edge, as well as a quarter-mile, accessible crushed-stone segment coming from a second parking lot on the southeast side of the lake.

The area is notable for being a portion of a 14-mile long glacial tunnel channel, where meltwater flowed beneath a glacier. Among the places the tunnel channel is best experienced is at the end of the Deerfield segment, which is joined to the Bohn Lake segment by a 1.8-mile connecting road.

Because we were headed from Bohn Lake to Deerfield, we saw this as we rose out of the channel to the crest of the Almond Moraine, where the land had been harvested relatively recently for its timber.

Along the moraine, we crossed a former stagecoach trail that joined Wautoma with Plainfield. We tried to identify flowers, which didn’t work because neither of us knows anything about them and it wasn’t until I got home that I downloaded an app to help me the next time we try.

As hikes go, it was a pleasant and uneventful time, with conversation again making the time pass quickly. We did indeed reach my car before 4 p.m., and despite missing a turnoff to get us back to Chris’ vehicle because of our yammering, we still had time for a quick beer to celebrate Wisconsin life.

The glacial tunnel channel had its outlet where the Village of Hancock now stands, so we went with the flow and stopped at Sneaky Pete’s in Hancock.  It’s a typical neighborhood gathering spot where the conversation included plenty of neighborly advice on domestic relations (not suitable for a family paper, though). 

It was an entertaining end to another fantastic Wisconsin day.

Remembering Chris Cirmo

By its very nature, leadership can create gulfs between leaders and other people, but good leaders can bridge those waters.  Chris Cirmo, the dean of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point College of Letters and Sciences who passed away May 26, was one who did.

Chris was a man I never got to know well, but I do know we shared important values.  He was a biologist and environmental scientist whose work often focused on sustainability of natural systems, especially water and wetlands.

In January, Chris changed his Facebook profile picture to one of himself in a johnboat on some body of water earlier in his career, with raindrops dappling the surface around him. Clad in a poncho and heavy sweater, he gazes at the camera with a contented look on his face. 

He wrote about the picture, “In my element. It has always been about water for me . . . and always will be.”

My first interaction with Chris was not a good one. He made a decision that impacted me directly and made me unhappy, but in retrospect he did so with a valid reason – he was following the recommendations of others whose judgment he trusted. 

As dean, Chris had to make a lot of tough decisions, and he knew he couldn’t please everyone. From what I can tell, he always did his best to work with that – to stay fair, to move on and approach each decision as a separate issue, and to make amends when needed.

I served with Chris on UWSP’s faculty senate for a short time after my first dealings with him, and I came to respect his even-handedness and open mind. He didn’t speak a great deal, but when he spoke, he made it count.

As often happens, it was at a social event outdoors, a celebration of a colleague’s marriage, where I first got the chance to get past professional walls with Chris.  He and his wife, Barbara, had found a picnic table outside the Bukolt Park lodge. Tables inside were full, so my wife Yami and I asked if we could join them.

They conversed graciously and easily with us for quite a while – far longer than we would have expected at even a casual social event, where professional status and rank don’t always disappear as they should. I remember leaving with the distinct feeling that Chris was a man whose leadership would never keep him from being humane and compassionate.

I last saw him on campus a week before he left us. I called to him from behind on a sidewalk, and although he was going in a different direction with a Friday evening event to attend, he turned back to approach me, meeting me halfway and greeting me with a warm handshake and friendly conversation. From what I know, he was the same with everybody.

Chris once wrote to me on Facebook to tell me he appreciated my outdoors column and photos.  Although he was by no means a prolific poster, his occasional posts showed clearly that he valued restorative moments outdoors, whether on a lake or in simply enjoying warm weather outside in an urban setting.

His far-too-early death is a reminder that we all need more of those moments.

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