Skunk Lake a sweet winter hike

This column originally appeared in the March 23, 2017, issue of the Portage County Gazette. 

St. Patrick’s Day dawned with a thin layer of snow, the potential for icy roads, and the promise of fog, which threatened to put a serious damper on the quest to familiarize myself with more of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

I’d made plans with my friend Chris Sadler for a possible trip to Gibraltar Rock in Sauk County, which offers some of the most spectacular views in Wisconsin.  But possibly risky driving, a small amount of road walking in potentially nasty weather, and the chance of poor visibility from the bluff made us decide to stick closer to home.

So we headed to a nearby portion of the Ice Age Trail – the segment at Skunk and Foster Lakes State Natural Area, one of 11 SNAs in Portage County and possibility the prettiest stretch of the trail in the county.

A clearly superior locale

Despite the St. Paddy’s Day fog, it was clear that we’d made a good choice. The presence of the trail makes this natural area one of the few with any substantial development – in this case, also including an actual parking lot with a large sign and a bridge or two.

During my previous weekend’s trip at Pickerel Lake SNA, we found one trail: a fairly wide and well-cleared one that led about 1,200 feet from the boat put-in area straight to a trailer just outside the area’s border to the south.

The rest of our hike had been pushing through the sometimes-thorny brush and skirting around it on the edge of the lake. I had a similar experience, without the easy path of a frozen lake’s edge, at New Hope Pines SNA this past week – more about that in my next column.

The Skunk Lake area, which comprises 266 acres and five glacial lakes, is much easier to navigate, although there are some nice up-and-down stretches that will give hikers a small aerobic workout.

A meandering, out-and-back loop starts (or ends) near Grenlie Lake, winding up and down and around some hummocky ridges between Grenlie, Foster and Skunk lakes. 

From what I can tell in the 2014 version of the official trail guidebook, the loop through the natural area is somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.8 miles long. It is connected by a half-mile walk on Indian Valley Road to the final 2.1 miles or so of the segment, which gives way to the Waupaca River segment of the trail.

Spring-fed Skunk Lake, at 11 acres, is the largest, and Foster covers 7 acres.  Neither of the smallest two lakes on the SNA is named on the Department of Natural Resources web site or in the trail guidebook, and if there was any indication of their names on signage, I didn’t see it because I was too engaged in conversation with Chris.

In fact, because we wandered off the main trail at one point to explore a side trail, just as our conversation often did, we completely lost our bearings. We only realized it when we came back to the main trail and started to backtrack without knowing it until we came to a large, recently fallen tree that we had passed around earlier, but from the opposite direction.

There’s an 0.8 mile loop, not part of the Ice Age Trail, that bears off from near the most northwestern  point on the trail, which the guidebook notes roams through a scenic, mature maple forest with rolling terrain. That’s not the one we went on – it’s blazed with a white mark – so I’m assuming that the extra portion we wandered was a later addition to the trail system.

In any event, the main trail is well blazed with the standard yellow Ice Age mark, and for most folks, there’s absolutely no danger of getting lost.

The DNR web site notes that most of the natural area is second-growth forest with a mix of paper birch, white pine, red maple, elm, white and red oak, big-tooth aspen and sugar maple. Among its several aquatic species is pumpkinseed – also known as “pond perch” or “common sunfish,” but a name I’d never heard before, as I’ve never really been an angler.

We’d seen tracks for one person and a large dog somewhere ahead of us.  Whoever it was apparently veered off the trail somewhere and got back to the only other car and departed before any sighting, so we might as well have had the place to ourselves.

We did stop yakking long enough to admire a couple of geese honking overhead, landing, and taking off around the lakes again.  We also relished the way fog rolled through the forest across the lakes and gave a peaceful, isolated feeling to the hike.

Not at all a bad way to enjoy weather that earlier had seemed to offer nothing to appreciate. 

If you go, try Clancey’s — no lyin’

Skunk Lake is a half-hour drive from downtown Stevens Point via U.S. 10.  Drive approximately 20 miles to Foley Road (a little more than three miles east of Amherst), then turn north and continue another two and a half miles or so. 

Not too long after it becomes North Foley Drive, it veers right and then left, and you’ll come to a well-signed parking lot on the left.

Our hike was short, but we’d built up a hunger.  And, as it was March 17, there was no choice but to head to another local institution new to us: Clancey’s Stone Lion in Custer.

Clancey’s advertises itself as an Irish pub and eatery and prides itself on its St. Patrick’s Week festivities, including an evening parade.  We arrived to a full house in the main bar of the old stone building. 

The fairly large dining room wasn’t close to full, though, as the lively bar appeared to be the primary draw – and why not, as it offers more than 40 Irish whiskeys in addition to several Irish beers.  Still, Clancey’s is well known for its made-from-scratch dishes, including its desserts, and we were quite satisfied with our choices.

Chris had a small bowl of beef stew with soda bread, as well as the corned beef and cabbage, which was served atop a baked potato.  We were each already working on a Guinness draught, so I added a Guinness barbecue beef sandwich on a large, fresh roll, supplementing it with a bowl of creamy potato and artichoke soup that seemed to have just a nip of either horseradish or strong mustard.

I finished it all off with a slice of Guinness chocolate cake. On the way out, we chatted with a couple of friends we ran into, then headed home to start planning our next trek.

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