There’s always New Hope along the road
Communication, or lack thereof, can always knock us off one track or another. But even when things don’t go as planned, some good usually comes out of it.
Such was the case when a failed connection recently caused me to miss a scheduled road walk, my first in a relatively unplanned and amorphous effort to see the entire Ice Age Trail (IAT) on foot.
But I still got a different portion of the trail completed, met some nice folks along the way, and saw another of Portage County’s state natural areas.
A few weeks ago, a friend and I covered most of the 5.7-mile New Hope Pines-Iola Ski Hill Segment of the IAT, skipping only a short road connection and the one-mile final trail portion past the ski hill.
We also missed the New Hope Pines State Natural Area (SNA), even though it’s just a 10th of a mile up Sunset Lake Road from the Ice Age trailhead.
It was only later that I discovered we had 11 such natural areas in Portage County and decided I’d want to see them all sooner or later.
Recently, I had planned to meet another IAT section hiker around noon a little northeast of Rosholt. By the time I arrived at our appointed meeting place, however, he was long gone; after waiting around a bit near his car, I headed back south to walk a different stretch.
To make the best of the missed connection, I ended up wandering around New Hope Pines before heading north to knock out a portion of the IAT’s connecting roads.
The natural area may one day be part of the trail itself, according to the 2014 version of the official Ice Age guidebook. The guide notes that a “primitive yet easily navigable path winds through the SNA,” which it calls one of the largest and least disturbed northern dry mesic forests in central Wisconsin.
Dry mesic forests are those generally found on irregular glacial topography featuring sandy or loamy-sand soils. It is also true that some sandy loam soils – who would have guessed? – can also have these forests, according to the area’s Department of Natural Resources webpage.
The upshot is that such conditions produced the environment best suited for the great Wisconsin pineries, according to the DNR, as said environments were dominated by white pine and red pine.
New Hope has a relatively young stand of white pine for what is generally called old growth. The DNR notes that the most dominant white pines in the site surpass 100 feet in height and 2 feet in diameter.
I found the start of the primitive path, but it certainly wasn’t easily navigable. Apparently it has become substantially overgrown or covered with forest trash since the guidebook first came out, and I went no more than 50 yards from the gate at the eastern entrance before losing track of the trail. No matter which direction I went, thorny stems blocked my path.
It doesn’t take much, however, to see the obvious differences between uncut pineries and the managed later growth that is so common in many of our Wisconsin outdoor destinations. No even rows of growth here – just randomly scattered trees rising up everywhere, like a pack of wild kids at camp.
I was awed by one dead giant, a 50-foot trunk lacking outer bark, but with stubs of sharp branches projecting everywhere like a spiked club, as well as various-sized holes marring its decaying remains.
It looked like more than half of its towering length was gone, but the remainder still rose majestically toward a beautiful blue Sunday sky.
Figuring it to be the most impressive sight I’d see, and because I still had several miles of asphalt to walk, I headed back out to Sunset Lake Road.
Lessons from the road
The IAT, as I’ve mentioned before, is roughly 1,200 miles long, all of it in Wisconsin, but only about 670 of that is trail through forest, field, marsh and meadow.
Connecting roads are a major part of the IAT, and any “Thousand Miler” – one of the folks who walk the trail as either through-hikers or section hikers – can’t avoid them.
The trail winds for 51.8 miles through Waupaca and Portage counties, but only 17.6 of those are actual trail. The New Hope-Iola segment is the northern extent of the non-road portion, and from its southbound trailhead to the Marathon County line is 10.2 miles.
Frankly, I was peeved. The miscommunication meant I’d have to walk a stretch and then double back, as I couldn’t drop my vehicle and shuttle to my starting point unless I could finagle a ride from somebody.
So, after my exploratory hike into New Hope Pines, I set out on the trip toward State Highway 66.
Most of the walk was along Sunset Lake Road, County T and Locust Road before hitting the busier lanes of County A. It was a peaceful stroll past a dairy or two, several farms and a few country cabins.
I crossed Flume Creek, took pictures of rolling landscape and noted that it was warm enough for the smells around me to come alive. The pines were fragrant, and the cattle, too.
I could even make out the dank smell of wet farm fields not yet ready for spring, which I noted had an odor akin to soggy dog.
The initial walk was isolated enough that I could hear the creaking of tall trees in the wind and contrast it with the squeaking of a chained gate trying to break its bonds in the breeze.
Not too long after reaching County A, I could see someone in blaze orange walking toward me on the east side of the road, more than a half-mile away. It turned out to be Don Zblewski and his silver Labrador Willow, both of whom I crossed over to meet.
After introducing ourselves, we had a lengthy conversation about a number of things. Don shared some harrowing tales of his service in Vietnam, along with a semi-harrowing tale of growing up as part of a family of 11 kids right there on County A.
When I said I was heading to the store and back, he reckoned it was no longer open and offered me a snack at his place down the road if I wanted to stop by on the return trip.
It turns out the store had closed a half-hour earlier, but the friendly clerk opened its doors and put my $3.78 for ice cream into the till for the next day’s accounting. I finished both a Klondike bar and a Good Humor Oreo bar on a bench in the front, resting my knees and feet for the return trip.
On the way back, I again encountered Don, who was walking his other dog, a small, fluffy thing named Toby who leapt about like a bouncing superball. Don pulled an energy bar out of his pocket for me and we chatted a bit more on the way back toward his place, where I left him at the driveway.
I met one more dog, a massive English mastiff belonging to a couple out walking not too far from the end of my 8.6-mile round trip.
In between the dogs and conversations, I’d had plenty of time to think about times folks had seemed reluctant to communicate with me. I also had to allow as how I’d done that on occasion myself. It helped me clarify a situation I’ve found myself in lately and presented me with a potential solution or two.
At its conclusion, my afternoon included almost 9.5 miles of walking (and 4.3 I could tack on to my IAT total), some head-clearing time and meeting some nice folks and great dogs.
All in all, a good way to spend a few hours in Portage County.