Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ice Age Trail: baffled by shrubberies

I pondered my predicament: do I hike in a given distance in the dark, or make camp adjacent to my car? I was at the trailhead of the Ice Age Trail on Highway 64 just outside of Medford, Wisc. Tired from the drive, but itchy to get walking. I chose the latter, after venturing into the woods by the light of a single LED bulb. Ferns and overgrowth hid the path; getting lost was not an option.

This would be the first night I would sleep in my new solo shelter system: a poncho/tarp and a bivy. Except parking lots rarely accept stakes easily. I jammed one stake under a tire, and hammered to others into the gravelly ground. During the whole process, a few rain drops started to fall. Just a few. "She's going to laugh at this," I thought. The hood was tied, and I slipped into the bivy. Rain came harder. Lightning. Thunder to the west at 10-Mississippi. The wind rushed, the air cooled. Then 15 was the count. Then it drifted away, to 20, 30 and 45.

I also set out to experiment with a new sleep system, one that leaves traditional bags and quilts at home, and to instead opt for insulated pants and parka. I started out resting my shorts and shirt. As I cooled, I slipped my long pants back on, and made damn sure my hips and shoulders were resting on my hacked down, torso-length pad. Then my fleece beanie went on, and I draped my jacket over my torso, quilt like. Then the jacket went on. Dawn came, and I stood up, warm and comfortable.

In my initial trip planning, I had been hard-pressed to find a decent map of the trail on such short notice. So I printed off a handful USGS topo maps (from 1980), grabbed the map at the trailhead and wandered in. The trail was woodsy and overgrown. No overlooks or vistas. Just woods. Ferns spilled over the footpath even at the trailhead, and dew-soaked grasses invaded any sense of path when I crossed over ancient beaver dams.

It was buggy, too. And I do not use DEET. I wore a windshirt in the morning and while moving, and kept the hood up almost at all times; my legs thanked me for wearing longs pants.

Around 90 minutes into the hike, I navigated down and around an old clear-cut via an access road. The trail then made a jaunt back into the woods and into a thicket of shrubberies and raspberry bushes. The trail then disappeared everywhere but at my feet. The bushes folding in front of me. Take a step in any direction, and they bent back to cover your path. The vegetation was taller than I, so I felt like I was walking blind through a cornfield without crop lines.

So I turned around. I already did not have a good picture of where I was going, and I was not interested in getting lost or wandering off-trail. To another trailhead? Maybe. That was a decision to make when I returned to my car.

With a mile or two to go, I could tell my knee was not 100 percent. The trail had been rolling, but not steep, and there had been now technical sections. Just cushy earth. But better safe then sorry, I headed home.

Because of the short nature of the hike, reviewing gear is sketchy at best. But I will say this. My pack was too large for a short jaunt such as this. This is caused by two factors. First, I did not take a full-size sleeping bag or quilt. Second, my food volume was low. Despite packing a cookpot, I could have easily fit many more days worth of food or packed bulkier gear. The pack carried well despite being underfilled. Also, as noted by Ryan Jordan in his review of the Blast 18, the side pockets were too short for my large, 1.5L Nalgene canteen (really ~63 oz). No matter, the bottle went in the rear pocket. My poncho/tarp took the place of the bottle in the side pocket.

Next on tap is a hiking trip for the weekend beginning July 24. Location is TBD.


samh said...

Two thumbs up.

Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,

Eric Sherman here from the Ice Age Trail Alliance. We have a Google alert set up to notify us of instances where "Ice Age Trail" is mentioned online. I received one for your blog entry.

Sorry to hear about the crummy conditions you encountered. I've forwarded the link to your post to our Western Field Rep for follow-up with the local volunteer chapter. (The Ice Age Trail is built and maintained almost exclusively by volunteers.)

I hope you'll consider coming back to the Ice Age Trail sometime. You can give our office a call (800-227-0046) for trip suggestions. Also, you can get detailed Trail info and regional segment maps at Interestingly enough, the Taylor County portion includes a note about some recent weather-related events that have made maintaining the segment you hiked a challenge.

Detailed hiking maps are available in a book we publish, the Ice Age Trail Atlas, also available at our website. The Chequamegon National Forest office also does a nice free map/brochure of the Ice Age Trail in that area in case you ever decide to head back.

Happy Trails!

Kind regards,

Eric Sherman
Communications Specialist
Ice Age Trail Alliance