From one extreme to the other, I'm beginning to feel perfectly at home on the trail.
I stayed up late chatting and drinking beer with Natalie and Eric after getting a good surprise out of them. The look on their faces and the time it took to process what was in front of them was priceless!
The next morning I woke up early to receive a new pair of snowshoes hand delivered by Northern Lites owner Jim York. He had never seen a rivet break like the one had on my pair and hypothesized that it was defective.
I stayed up, sweeping the floors, playing with Annie, the house Labrador, and writing over coffee while the everyone else remained asleep. Once they got up, we had a "first breakfast" of toast and eggs to hold us over until the planned birthday brunch. How nice to be warm and comfortable, staring out the window as the fog grew thick and turned the world into a white haze.
Once Emily, Natalie's sister, and her boyfriend arrived, we had a full on brunch feast to celebrate their father Jay's 60th birthday. We happily stuffed ourselves, birthday cards were read silently with a hint of tears, and Emily and Natalie performed a rendition of Neil Young's Old Man on guitar for their father.
I made sure to play the guitar a little before Emily left with it, wanting to sing aloud but mostly refraining, and playing an old original that still remains within me.
When things settled down, Natalie, Eric, Jay and I went out ice fishing on the frozen lake behind the house. After some time, I had caught nothing and headed inside to continue writing in the silence of the house while the others managed to catch seven little bluegills.
Once they came in, I asked Jay to teach me how to filet fish, a new and exciting experience I felt was important to learn. Afterwards he even said I did pretty good. I came back inside, washed me hands, and struck up a game of cribbage with Natalie and Eric; they are quite fast at counting points and it made the game move along much faster than when I was learning along with my mom prior to the hike.
I was happy to learn the 3-handed version and as we finished up our game, family friends arrived and all sorts of conversations exploded in a excited fury of good-naturedness.
Once the feast that was dinner was finished being prepared, we sat and ate together. I heard the oddest stories of how some people choose to live their lives, and our conversation eventually devolved into the telling of our best one-liner jokes over neon green Green Bay Packers cake. Next a smattering of card games were played and I eventually left the table to get packing up and shower.
The family friends left as I was drying off in the bathroom, as it was well after midnight. I stayed up a little later reading news about Jupiter's self-supported Fastest Known Time on the Florida Trail amidst his Eastern Contenintal Trail thru-hike.
I felt thoroughly recharged and ready to finish the last half of the hike. Just a day earlier I was feeling tired and worn from the past month of travel, but taking advantage of rest days and going with the flow rather than forcing tons of miles made a huge difference.
After a nice breakfast the next day, I hung around 'till noon when Natalie and Eric drove me back to the trail. After saying our goodbyes, I snowshoed past large pine trees and into the night, stopping at a small cabin along the trail. I read through the cabin journal entries by candlelight noticing Billy Goat had been here just a few months back; I had just seen a picture of him and Jupiter at the Florida Trail's southern terminus.
I took my time the next morning, sweeping out and tidying the cabin before continuing on. Lots of roads connected small stretches of trail and I enjoyed a few fresh, powdery oddball segments that remained untrammeled. I finished White Fang as I walked the roads into Rosholt where I intended to eat some barbecue at a restaurant in town. When I got the the meager "main drag" that night I found it absolutely deserted and carried on, camping behind a gas station as a layer of fog descended.
The fog lifted slightly as the day broke and I packed up quickly and started down a 22-mile roadwalk with a purpose, intent on getting to the Hatley post office to pick up a new set of Vargo Pocket Cleats before they closed at 4pm. I stopped only to stretch my sore hips and, with no book to read, listened to The Ghost Inside's Dear Youth , La Dispute's Rooms of the House , and nearly two episodes of The Trail Show.
In Hatley, I quickly stopped into a gas station to resupply and ate a 6" sub from Subway before making my way to the post office where I picked up my package and had a nice conversation with the lady behind the counter. She let me repackage food in the lobby while she closed up shop and I was soon on my way.
Snowmobile trails led me past a human waste facility and into the night, where I nearly missed a trail junction that was concealed by a fallen tree. The trail began as an untouched path, eventually becoming more and more traveled as I carried on. It eventually became littered with tracks (from a horse even!) and difficult to travel, tossing my feet to and fro as my snowshoes fell into the irregular post holes. I set up my Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Fiber Solomid XL at the first flat spot I found, as the forecast called for snow late that evening.
Finally I would see the conditions I had been hoping for from the start (temperatures in the 10-20 degree F range and snow) and would be able to put the gear I had been lugging all this way to good use. The pitter-patter of snow began in the night and continued as I decided to get up the next morning.
I had read one too many political posts on social media that morning and found myself getting angry and feeling claustrophobic while packing up on my knees under the tarp and putting on the Mountain Laurel Designs Cuben Fiber Poncho. I thought hard about that as I snowshoed through the falling snow and decided to let the peaceful and beautiful day soak in.
I walked snowmobile trails, fresh trails, traveled trails, snow covered roads, and alongside a plowed road all while wearing snowshoes. It was great! I walked along the Eau Claire river, enjoying the peaceful sounds of the water rushing by, and thoroughly enjoyed the Plover River segment, especially when the trail turned into fresh powder as the light faded to night.
I walked those last few powdery miles in the dark without a headlamp, following the winding corridor through the forest, feeling perfectly at home and happy as ever.
Driving winds blew snow into my face and across the road is sweeping motions as I walked the back roads into Antigo. As I neared a motel I planned to stay at, I reflected that, for me, hiking largely includes an element of being mentally engaged and I milled over what keeps my mind captivated over the varying terrain and landscapes I encounter.
After a night of tossing and turning in the warm hotel room, I packed up to the sounds of The Smith's Louder Than Bombs and headed over to the Dixie Lunch café for breakfast. I called up the local paper to see if they'd like to write about my journey and moments later a reporter was interviewing me as I ate.
I spent hours writing over many cups of coffee and scheduled a massage hoping to help the sharp pain in my left shoulder which had not yet gone away. After the relaxing session, I resupplied across the street and brought a Little Ceasar's pizza to the post office, eating it as I mailed food to be picked up three days later in Irma, which had no other options for resupply.
After mailing the package just before the post office closed, I headed back out onto the road, traveling nine miles to the home of a trail angel, Stephanie. I was greeted at the door by her husband, Travis, and we chatted and watched television, Stephanie joining us when she got home from work. They set me up on a futon in the basement and we retired to the evening.
The next morning I awoke early to the sound of Stephanie leaving for work and wrote for a few hours while lying in bed. I went upstairs to stretch in the silence of the morning, admiring the variety of birds that fluttered around on the porch.
I considered how precious silence can be nowadays, with music, television, and urban noise pervading much of our lives, and thought it tragic for silence to become obsolete.
Stephanie kindly left some gummy worms for me and as I finished packing up and was about to head out Travis woke up and offered to make me some breakfast. I thanked him and denied the offer, since I had planned to meet up for a interview that afternoon.
It was chillier than it had been lately, and the cold air blew across my face as I walked the roads. As I passed farmlands and into the trees the wind became blocked and the sun began to shine. I started to think about my desire to get back to woodblock printmaking, which I had fallen in love with in college, and daydreamed about collaborations with typography artists and potential designs to send to my friends. As I considered the time available to me, I grew sad, since I have so many projects I want to begin and work on, yet I'm planning a two-and-a-half year walk beginning in less than a year and would have to put them on the back burner.
To take my mind off of this conflict of interest I plugged in Lil' Wayne's Tha Carter IV and sang along as best I could, avoiding getting hit by the few trucks that passed me on the desolate back roads.
I rolled up to the Kettlebowl trailhead just as Steve, a writer for a Stevens Point newspaper, and his colleague pulled up. I hopped in their car and we drove to a Mexican restaurant in Antigo, across the street from where I had resupplied the previous day. After some good food, a beer, and a layed-back, conversational interview, I was driven back to the trailhead.
I strapped on my Forty Below Energy TR overboots and Northern Lites Backcountry snowshoes and we headed down the trail together. The thin crust over the powdery snow was breaking through jerkily and without snowshoes they quickly got behind and we decided to part ways.
As I cruised on and began to overheat, I decided to make a "quick" clothing change and take off my RBH Designs Lightning Bug pants. The change took nearly 10 minutes with unstrapping snowshoes, undoing overboots, untieing shoes, slipping off the layer, and putting it all back together. Simple tasks take much longer in the winter.
The segment was a real pleasure to walk, varying from wide open trail to tight confined paths with the occasional snowmobile trail thrown in for good measure. I followed wolf and deer tracks all day and the one time I followed snowshoe tracks they led me in the wrong direction. It's amazing how the animals of the forest follow the trail so closely, and I rarely did I have to look for the blazes which thankfully occurred less frequently than the sections I had traveled up until now.
I felt very "out there", with minimal road crossings and rarely a sign of humans, and as the night came upon me, the stars shined brightly overhead and I would pause to take in their glory along with the silence of the forest around me. I kept getting the feeling that wolves were watching me, but each scan with my headlamp revealed no sign of eyes lurking in the forest. I guess I'd been reading too much Jack London.
It would have been a nice night to cowboy camp under the stars, but I made it to the "Hillbilly Hilton", a dirty, semi-underground shelter at an old logging camp, and I decided to stay the night, reading through the register entries before adding my own.
I got a late start the next morning and started out in a snow shower that tapered off into flurries for the remainder of the day. The trail shared tread with many snowmobile paths and I saw more snowmobilers than I had for the entire trip thus far. I even had to jump off the trail at one point as two large packs of snowmobilers passed each other.
I had been debating pushing on to Irma on the small surplus of rations I had, but this would involve two 30-mile days and would be a lot of work. I am sometimes torn between pushing ahead and chilling out. But there was a bar about 4 miles north of the trail in Summit Lake and pizza was sounding pretty good.
I reached the road I would take north toward the pizza and began walking after strapping the snowshoes and overboots to my pack. A car slowly approached me and a young man asked if I'd like a ride. I happily accepted; I finally was able to accept a ride since this was a side trip and not part of my thru-hike route.
He dropped me off at the steps of the bar and I offered to buy him a beer, but he carried on his way instead. I walked in and found a mass of snowmobilers hanging out. I got a spot at the bar, ordered a pizza burger (which was stuffed with cheese) and a few beers, and finished writing the next blog post.
As I walked toward the door after finishing up, I few locals recognized me from the Antigo paper and we chatted briefly. I walked to the gas station next door to resupply before continuing back down the highway towards the trail. I was enjoying hiking in the dark along the highway's wide shoulder when a minivan pulled up next to me and offered a ride. I hopped in and learned that the nice couple lived on a connector route of the Ice Age Trail just west of Antigo. They had read about me in the paper and liked helping hikers in the summer. I guess that interview at the Dixie Lunch paid off!
They dropped me off at the trail crossing and I walked a short distance down the trail before making camp, generally content with life as it was.
The next day I followed snowmobile trails for most of the day, blazes sparse enough to keep me attentive. The sun and blue skies popped out for a bit and warmed the day. I can say I felt happy and at home all day, and gained much confidence about my two-and-a-half year hike, believing that I would enjoy the trip with no problems. I slept well that night at a wall-less Adirondack-style shelter which consisted of a roof and a picnic bench.
I awoke the next morning in time to catch a fiery sunrise as I packed up camp and headed towards a river ford, which I wasn't sure how I was going to tackle just yet.
Before I knew it I was face-to-face with the Prarie River. Going around was not going to be an option since the brush was quite thick and I made a plan and readied myself for the ford.
Temperatures were in the single digits and as I removed my shoes and socks and strapped them to my pack, the task ahead of me grew more and more daunting. I did my best to capture the event on my Instagram story, which helped distract me a bit, but ultimatly slowed the process.
I stepped from my small section of foam pad into the snow and out onto the ice at the edge of the river. The cold was shocking, and I hadn't even begun. The ice on the river's edge was covered in slush and I slid out further until the ice broke underfoot and I plunged into the running water below. I continued on, punching through the ice into the running current until I was out into the the river, my breath shortening and pain shooting through my feet.
The river bottom was coated in slush and with each step I slowly sank into it, hardly able to move at all, much less with any sort of agility. The far edge of the river seemed miles away and I hoped only for it to be closer and this miserable task to be done.
As I reached the middle of the ford, an ice sheet blocked the way and again I was forced to punch through with my bare feet, weighting the ice until it cracked and broke into sharp pieces. Each step was equal parts numbness and pain, the ice inflicting cuts, although I couldn't feel it.
Each step was excruciatingly slow, but I could not move faster for the life of me. I found myself in the next open current which was calf deep, and waded through it until I reached the shore, my feet sticking to the logs that protruded out of the water and then snow sticking to my feet as I gained the shore.
I threw down the small section of pad and put on my extra pair of socks to dry my feet. As I switched over to the RBH Designs Insulated socks I noticed small cuts but still couldn't feel them or take the time to do anything about them. I threw on my footwear system and continued hiking down the trail on numb feet until they thawed and returned to normal about an hour later.
The stretches of trail I encountered next were heavily blaze polluted, and I could see 4 blazes at any given time and even saw nine from one spot! I couldn't help but feel grossed out and insulted, unable to look past the many yellow paint marks that tainted the woods yet led the way.
I got over it, rationalizing that in different seasons, it is very possible that that many blazes would be nessesary for convenient travel.
Snows began to fall as the winds picked up and more rivets on my snowshoes popped, which both Jim and I were somewhat baffled by when I called him up. This is the first time he had seen this kind of thing happen and began to dwindle the cause down to a new employee assembling the rivets incorrectly. We decided to meet at the Irma post office the next day, and I would be testing a new pair with steel rivets that could potentially resolve the problem indefinitely.
After a quick road walk, I stepped onto a fresh stretch of powdery trail to begin the Underdown segment. I had a grand old time navigating the untouched trail in the darkness, until it began mixing into various cross-country ski trails and became more difficult to follow. My headlamp batteries began to poop out and I had a difficult time staying on course for the last stretch. I finally reached the newly built Schotz shelter after a long, hard, beautiful, and intense day having covered nearly 24 miles. The ups and downs over the many hills combined with snowshoeing all day wore me out, and I hopped in my sleeping bag to eat dinner, journal, and rest up for the next day.