After snoozing and taking a second to enjoy the the shelter that housed me, I packed up and wandered over to the frozen Dog Lake to admire winter's ineffable stillness.
Three miles of trail passed quickly, snow starting to spit as I neared the trailhead. The wind picked up as I walked down the road, forcing me to put on goggles and block the driving snow. Backroads led me across a busy highway and into the small town of Irma, it's post office the only non-residential building in town.
I received the package I had mailed myself from Antigo and proceeded to take over the vacant lobby at the mercy of the friendly mail clerk, who kindly offered me a chair to sit in.
Jim York arrived soon thereafter with a new pair of Northern Lites Backcountry Rescue snowshoes sporting new steel rivets to test out over some hard miles. He also brought me some extra fuel since I had overlooked my supply back in Summit Lake and even refused my attempt to reimburse. I thanked him for his kindness and we planned to meet at the Ice Age Trail's Western Terminus in a few weeks.
After shipped some things to Portland that had seen little to no use thus far I made my way down slippery roads, wind and snow now pleasantly absent.
I continued the movement of my feet and the daunting distance was soon covered. As I neared an intersection, a car pulled up next to me and Ruby, the Northwoods Chapter coordinator, said hello and how she had just been talking about me, having had received an email about my journey earlier. Speak of the devil! We discussed another river ford up ahead, and, after snapping a quick picture of me, we parted ways.
Down the road I noticed a bar, Pankow's, and I decided to stop in for a beer because, well, why not? I chatted with the few locals inside and turned down an opportunity to eat a $10 frozen pizza before continuing on to the next trail segment.
Off popped the pack and on popped the new snowshoes as I made my way down the 1.6-mile stretch of dead-end trail. It meandered along groomed cross country ski paths until the very last bit, a glorious stretch of fresh powder that felt like heaven to my feet and sparked my interest keenly. It had been quite rare to find any stretch of trail untouched by any living creature, and I relished in the excitement of being the first creature to traverse the stretch all winter. Shortly, a sign marking the end of the segment was upon me and I turned back to retrace my steps as night fell.
I continued across the road onto the Grandfather Falls segment, a sliver of moon providing enough light to show the way. Slowly, I traced inklings of trail work through the winding segment, taking my time, enjoying tight trails and boardwalks running alongside the Wisconsin River, embracing my adventure into the unknown past large rock fields and lulling rapids choked with ice. I passed a large dam lit eerily by orange sheets of flourescent light and soon found myself walking back up the road to Pankow's, the call of pizza sounding more and more loudly inside me over the past few hours.
I placed the order for a bacon cheeseburger pizza and as I waited a few locals wandered in and struck up conversation. Beers were ordered and, after hearing my plans to sleep outside, Richard invited me into his home down the road. I couldn't help but accept the offer.
A Murphy bed was made up for me and I enjoyed a shower before we retired. The house was toasty warm and comfortable; I wondered how it would be to ford the New Wood River the next day, supposedly deeper and wider than my previous ford.
In the morning, I was offered coffee and cereal while admiring the superb view of the Wisconsin River across their back yard. We spotted a bald eagle perched high up in a tree downstream and I enjoyed pleasant conversation as the light of the day slowly engulfed the trees across the river.
I stripped the bedsheets and was driven back to the steps of Pankow's to continue the journey. A long-feeling road walk brought me to the next segment of trail which beared no sign of human life, only that of deer and rabbit. The sun shone down and I mentally prepared myself as I made my way closer to the impending two-part ford.
The smaller Avery creek was mostly frozen over and I crossed cautiosly, stabbing my trekking poles into the ice and following solid sounds. After crossing the ice with no complications, I came upon the larger New Wood River, which appeared similar as I approached. I noted open patches of ice at the trail crossing and doubted not that I would break through into the river below.
I followed the river a short ways upstream and found a section more solidly covered by ice. I descended the steep bank ever so cautiously and stabbed the ice with force, hearing nothing but solidity in return. Crossing nervously and quickly, trusting the ice to support my weight, I soon found myself on the other side, no worse for wear. Nice!
I enjoyed a smoke in celebration. The day was kind, sunshine abundant with white, puffy clouds intermittent.
On a short jaunt along a road to the next segment, a car pulled up, asking if I needed anything and asking the age old question: "you got a gun?" I replied, " no, but I have faith," and carried on.
After another break alongside three massive white pines leaning over the river, I came across a section of forest being actively logged. As I neared a huge processor, the men stopped their work to have a chat with me. They were fascinated with my journey and had many questions for me to answer. I should have layered while we talked, for when I eventually got going, I was chilled to the bone, rushing along to regain warmth.
I woke hungrily in the middle of the cold night and scarfed snacks before falling back to sleep. It was the coldest night of the trip, maybe 10 degrees F below zero with a slight breeze, and I waited until the sun was well up to break camp.
The next day was full of snowshoeing and I found the thrill of the north woods had faded. The extra effort of snowshoeing and the sore feet that arose from the inconsistent terrain had me feeling a general sort of anger. I decided to make it to Camp 28, a lakeside resort in Rib Lake, and plugged in some old classics, like Odd How People Shake by Fear Before the March of Flames, as I hiked the roads to the resort through the night.
I munched on a large pizza and a drank few White Russians before getting a room, exploding my pack, and passing out.
I got some writing done over coffee the next morning, and went out to lunch with the Taylor County chapter coordinator, Buzz, who was nice enough to drive me the short distance to town, treat me to lunch, and accompany me as I resupplied, before returning me to Camp 28.
The rest of the night I vegged out, eating as much as I could, and got a little bit of work done, making sure to catch the golden sun setting behind the distant trees across town.
The next evening I reached the Chequamegon National Forest after hiking roads, fresh trails, and more roads to get there. I hiked into the night without headlamp as long as was possible, the trail traversing open forests of deciduous trees and narrow corridors among the pines. I had stuffed myself over the past few days and went to bed without dinner, thoroughly exhausted from a long day.
The next day's first miles seemed long thanks to the persistent pain in my left shoulder. Mid-day I took advantage of a swing set in the abundance of sunshine the bluebird day had provided, the rush of wind and defiance of gravity ever bringing a smile to my face.
The radio in my head was tuning in and out of all sorts of fragmented chunks of songs, so I laughed along to an episode of The Trail Show instead. This added to the amusement I got from passing many trail blazes that were being eaten by the trees that bore them.
That night, I ran into others on the trail. They were part of New Vision wilderness therapy and I was astounded to learn that kids stayed out in the woods for anywhere from 45 to 120 days! Many had been out longer than I. Mad respect. I ended the night under a large pine tree as the temperatures fell.
I purposely camped before an upcoming water source but found it solidly frozen over in the morning. After signing a well-placed trail register atop a hill, I carried on, coming across a running source later in the day. I often found myself zoning out, thinking, "oh crap, am I even following the trail right now?" only to find myself walking past a yellow blaze. It was like I was subconsciously hiking, following the path of least resistance through the forest like the other wild animals whose tracks I frequently traversed.
Despite my best efforts to enjoy the last of my time in the peaceful forest, I was spat out onto a road and began walking it towards the next town. I discovered that there was a bar on the way and thought it a good idea to head there and eat some pizza. When is it a bad time to eat pizza?
I passed the time reading Jupiter's ECT trip report and listening to Meshuggah's Obzen in its entirety, two wonderful things that put me in a great mood. Just as the album finished up I walked up the steps to the Sittin Bull Tavern.
As I entered the bar, the bartender told me they were closing soon (I later learned she had thought I was someone else and had wanted me to leave). But the two patrons and I got to talking and after hearing my story, Tim said, "hell, I'll put you up. I get a kick outta people like you." I graciously accepted the offer to escape the freezing rain in the forecast, be fed for a night, and potentially ice fish the next day. I enjoyed a few beers before heading home with them, and we ate some barbecue together before heading off to sleep.
The next day started off with a huge breakfast cooked by Sutton, and I passed up ice fishing to sew holes in my deteriorating gear and write. In the afternoon we headed over to Lisa's G-Spot, a bar in Jump River, for happy hour. We stayed most of the night and I played a game of pool Andy it a kick out of the well behaved pit-lab who would jump up into a seat at the bar a sit ever so patiently for a treat.
I made the mistake of talking politics in the bar (which I found to be equally informative and baffling), but we were able to end the night on a good note and went home to pass out.
I woke early the next morning and began writing in the silent house. The others awoke and I packed up my gear as Sutton cooked up another fine breakfast. Tim drove me back home to the Sittin' Bull tavern in his yellow work bug and I started off from the steps I had walked up a couple of nights prior.
I stuck to the crusted snow near the shoulder of the roads as I walked towards Cornell; the frozen rain from the previous day covered the streets in a thin layer. I traveled back roads as long as I could and as I approached a highway I was to traverse for the remainder of the day, Tim pulled up, having finished some errands, and informed me town was 10.3 miles away, handing me some beef sticks before taking off.
Soon enough I found myself in town, and stopped in a gas station for fuel and grocery store to resupply my food rations, enjoying the large selection and low prices. As I headed through town I noticed the local paper's building and decided to walk in to see if they wanted to publish a story about my walk.
I caught them right before they closed and although she could not guarantee it would be published, I was interviewed and photographed quickly. I was pointed across the street for a good place to eat and sat down at Big T's bar, ordering a big burger and a beer.
As I repackaged rations and ate my meal, the bartender placed a paper tab in front of me with the total bill on it. I finished and sat around scrolling through social media posts when my tab was grabbed and ripped up, the bartender saying "it's on the bar." It took a second for me to understand what she meant, but she clarified and I thanked her very much.
As I packed up to head into the cold night, people wanted very much to chat, and I appeased them before heading on my way.
A short roadwalk led me to the next stretch of trail where I hiked by moonlight, circling a lake and then along the Chippewa River. I made my way across the street and into a deciduous forest, searching out a satisfactory camp to brave the cold night. With no pine trees to cozy up under, I found a slight depression near the top of a hillside and cowboy camped under the moon, foregoing cooking dinner, a full belly pulling me into sleep for some hours before I could even write my daily journal entry.
I slept warm through the night with down layers on inside my down bag, the overnight low of -4 degrees F easily conquered. The sun warmed the day slightly before I began packing up, but since the coldest temps come just before dawn, my feet took some warming up as I hit the trail. My breath turned to ice on my beard, the crisp, clear day remaining frigid for some hours.
As I walked on, snapping photos of the different blazes, it dawned on me that I did not have my cooking pot or Trail Designs Ti-Tri Cauldera Cone stove system with me. I hadn't used it the previous night and hadn't packed it up this morning either. I've made it a habit to scan any area I linger at to make sure I have everything before carrying on, and determined it must have been left at Tim and Sutton's after I had given it a wash there. I contacted Tim and received a report that it was nowhere to be found in the house. I was unsure of what happened to it, but soon after, Tim found the pot, taken by their dog Max and hidden in his kennel. Ha!
Tim drove it right out to a trail intersection I would soon be at and buried it in the snow for me to find, a bag of peanuts on a stick marking its resting place. Happy to have the gear item back, I walked on, passing many informative plaques and catching a beautiful post-sunset painting of sky atop a hill.
A near-full moon rose as I walked into the night and I camped out under the tall, bare trees that leaned overhead, ready to tackle the last long roadwalk of the trip the following day.