“Jewel of Marathon County forests” offers miles of winter fun

This column originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2017, issue of the Portage County Gazette.

Checking out the scenery at Nine Mile County Forest rec area

Is Wausau too big?

Of course not. The question seems ludicrous unless you ardently love even smaller cities like Stevens Point. 

But over a tasty wheat beer in downtown Wausau with a friend, prior to a Marathon County snowshoeing outing, the question took root and shaped my thoughts on another excellent regional attraction.  

On Google Earth, the Nine Mile County Forest Recreation Area looks worthy of a Presidential Award of Yuuuugeness and Economic Development.

The satellite view reveals one of Marathon County’s largest unbroken stretches of relatively undeveloped land, but the neat rows of trees smack in its middle clearly hint at cultivation of both business and pleasure.

Nothing wrong with that.  Parks need to be paid for, and a recent visit to this 4,900-acre plot showed why the county rightfully advertises it as “the crown jewel of our county forest system.”

Multiple uses rule at Nine Mile

It occurs to me that Ed Abbey, the iconoclastic author of our most famous “ecotage” literature, would not have been pleased with Nine Mile’s highly developed approach to winter sport. 

Abbey, however, is buried somewhere in the Arizona desert, and it’s a sure bet that a majority of Central Wisconsinites would be happy with the bustling nature of their local recreation area.

For the record, so am I.  Although my visit to Nine Mile convinced me that our quiet little Plover River Trail on the Green Circle is a better place for me to cross-country ski, I appreciate Nine Mile’s purposes.

Abbey was perhaps best known for his environmental classics The Monkey Wrench Gang and its sequel, Hayduke Lives (both about saboteurs of construction machinery in the back country of the American Southwest).  He was no fan of what he called “industrial tourism.” 

But near-industrial-sized tourism was what appeared to greet my friend Chris Sadler and me when arriving at Nine Mile close to mid-afternoon last Friday. As we pulled into the large parking lot, we saw at least two dozen autos and a full-sized touring coach.

Those used to having only two or three cars with “Coexist” bumper stickers in the Plover River lot might wonder whether peace and quiet are possible at Nine Mile. We were mildly disconcerted, but headed to its chalet to purchase our $6 day passes ($5 seniors) for snowshoeing the forest.

The recreation area has 29.3 kilometers of groomed ski trails, double-tracked with an 8-foot-wide skating lane. While the county parks web site clearly states “Snowshoeing is allowed on the cross country trails,” we were told that was not the case, as we expected.

Instead, we marched off on the designated snowshoeing trail, which covers between 4 and 10 kilometers, depending on how visitors trek its various loops.

While we admired the well-groomed, wide skiing trails, which often ran parallel to the snowshoe loops through the forest, the more intimate confines of thick trees pleased us.  The ski trails looked like a Grand Prix track relative to what I’m used to on Stevens Point-area trails.

A ski lane at Nine Mile

Indeed, Nine Mile is used for a number of skiing competitions, including those at the Badger Games, and there’s a large starting and finishing area near the chalet. 

Despite the parking lot, we saw only a dozen or so skiers during our 8-kilometer meandering jaunt along the snowshoe trail.

Chris used, for the first time, a pair of shoes he had been given, and I had my commercially made shoes that I had not tried for several years.  We both were reacquainting ourselves with the sport after being unable to fully enjoy a segment of the Ice Age Trail a couple of weeks earlier because of deep snow.

Much to my chagrin, I’d forgotten that my normal winter boots are too big for my snowshoes, so the shoes weren’t properly strapped behind my boots.  That caused my boots to pop out of the toeholds three times in the first couple of kilometers, and I finally gave up on the snowshoes, carrying them afterward.

Fortunately, the trail’s snow was well packed and there was no problem with normal hoofing. 

A fine walk went quickly, with the sun shining brightly for much of the afternoon and clearly illuminating the hills we saw through trees to the west. Still, I paid less attention to the scenery than I normally do, as our conversation flowed smoothly from one topic to the next.

We had a rest stop where the snowshoe trail crosses a skiing loop; a fire pit, some benches and a well-stocked supply of wood invite recreationists to sit and relax.

Much of the recreation area is well supported by friends of county parks, including the obviously busy Wausau Nordic Ski Club, which donated $10,000 toward a trail groomer in 2015, among other efforts.

Ski trails range from novice to expert, with a wide variety of terrain.  Nine Mile also offers trails for snowmobiling – an activity I suspect Abbey and I would substantially agree on, but whose presence I try to respectfully tolerate.  Continued support for our outdoor environment relies on many groups.

The recreation area has a wide variety of year-round outdoor activity, including economically necessary, sustainable lumbering.

With so much to see and do, Nine Mile is a place I’ll revisit, both for cross country at some point and for other activity, including summer hiking. 

If you go: take your French dictionary

Nine Mile can be reached via Marathon County N west from I-39 at Rib Mountain to Red Bud Road, which goes directly south to the chalet.  It’s about 34 miles and 36 minutes from downtown Point using this route.

There’s a more complicated, but shorter and more scenic route through downtown Mosinee to the south, involving several turns and 4 fewer miles. Check your favorite mapping technology.

I’m kidding about the French dictionary, but it’s relevant in that, while reacquainting myself with a bit of Ed Abbey history, I learned that the word saboteur comes from the French sabot, a heavy wooden shoe used by vengeful peasants to trample landlords’ crops. 

For more peaceful citizens, Wausau always offers chances for patriotic economic duty.  We availed ourselves of a quick, late lunch at Redeye Brewing Co., where stellar mac and cheese bowls (including three cheeses, Nueske’s bacon, and herbed bread crumbs) fortified us for our outing. 

On the way back home, we popped over to the Great Dane Pub, where Jerry the bartender treats everyone like an old friend.  We split an order of poutine, the French Canadian dish whose Wisconsin spinoff consisted of French fries topped by cheese curds, brown gravy and chives.

I had never tried it; now I can say I have.  Although it’s a great way to replace calories burned, I’ve never been a gravy guy, so I began scheming up more flavorful variations, such as fries with a jalapeño salsa, cheddar curds and cilantro.

I’m sure that even if ol’ Ed would find the Great Dane a bit hoity-toity and citified, he’d be OK with the beer and the food, and that was OK for us, too.

Looking west toward the hills in late afternoon

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