Submitted by Steve Meurett
There are things in life that kind of sit and brew in the mind for years, things that keep being put on the back burner until time or circumstance at some point, bring it forward. 1,200 miles. That’s an impressive number and when tied to the length of a trail, it’s pretty remarkable by any standard.
The Ice Age Trail is truly unique and one of Wisconsin’s own. Although not all 1,200 miles are pure hiking trail, to trek it from it’s origin in Taylors Falls, Wisconsin in the west to it’s end point at Potowtomi State Park in Door County, would be a monumental feat. The trail marks the “terminus” of the last glacier as it advanced through Wisconsin some15,000 years ago. After the glaciers retreat, what was left behind was an impressive geological landscape, filled with landforms such as eskers, moraines, kettles, kames, and drumlins among others. For the most part, the Ice Age Trail follows this terminal moraine and threads hikers though these glacial features.
Although I love trails-ski, bike or hiking, a thousand plus miles is a bit much to tackle, so I decided to bite off just 9 miles to start. This spring, the IAT put out a request for “field editors” as they re-write the trail guidebook and update the IAT maps. This sounded like a great opportunity to finally hike a segment, record my experience and submit changes or additions for the trail.
The nearest IAT segments are in Taylor and Lincoln Counties and since I was familiar with the Underdown Recreation Area north of Merrill, I requested to field edit that section. Besides, I could knock off a solid mountain bike ride while in the area as well.
The Underdown Area is located south and east of Irma Wisconsin and is a vast network of trails including not only the IAT, but a spider web of mountain bike, horse, XC ski and snowshoe trails. It lies within a section of the Lincoln County forest dotted with numerous small pot hole lakes and deep forest and glacial terrain. Truly a unique and beautiful place. Typically the Ice Age Trail is designated foot travel only, but the Underdown Segment does share a fairly large portion with these other silent sports. The short Alta Vista segment a few miles north east, is hiking only and continues to the rugged Harrison Hills Segment.
The Alta Vista Segment is just north east of the Underdown and generally follows an old lumber era railroad grade and ends at the ghost town of Dunfield. It’s named after a natural bubbling spring (Alta Springs) which at one time supplied bottled water for “medicinal purposes.”
Although this segment follows the old RR grade for most of its distance, there also is a short rugged section from the trailhead on Highway J to the Ice Age Trail parking area. Old railroad tie corduroy can still be seen underfoot and form much of the surface of the trail bed. This trail can be very buggy as it is surrounded on both sides by wetlands and near the North branch of the Prairie River State Fishery Area.
The Underdown Segment is much more primeval in feel-especially on the west end where the segment begins off Horn Lake Road. Sphagnum moss bogs grow amid the hemlock groves and towering white pines here. Steep climbs up and down hummocks are the general rule between Mist and Dog Lakes and share it’s path with lightly used horse and mountain bike trails.
There are several primitive backpacking campsites along the way and occasional Leopold benches to take a break. Following yellow blazes and brown and yellow arrows at intersections made navigating the layers of trails easy. Along the way, volunteer trail builders have added several short re-routes of the original ice age trail, which avoid fall lines and traverse the glacial features much better. After crossing Loop Road an open mature white birch forest lie ahead, home to nesting Coopers Hawks. The segment continues though open forest and a recent logging operation with quickly sprouting popple and berry brush.
Just prior to crossing Loop road a second time, the trail follows a horse trail called “Moonshine Loop” and is near the site of an original homestead of Bill Underwood. It may be possible to find the remnants of the cabin foundation here with some extensive exploring.
Immediately after crossing Loop road again, the segment steeply climbs an esker, a very narrow “hogsback”ridge with steep sides falling off on both sides from the narrow ribbon of trail. Another bench here lets the hiker rest and take in the surrounding beautiful deep woods. A final descent leads the trail down and across a wet intermittent creek and back up and through another popple regeneration. One last small bridge crossing leads the trail back to the endpoint at Copper Lake Road.
Even though the bugs can be ferocious during warm summer months, the terrain here should not be missed, for there are few places like this in our state. In fact, visiting the Underdown segment at any time of year here would be a special treat and certainly show off the various flavors of these trails. Although barely scratching the surface of the Ice Age Trail, It was enough of a taste to want to tackle more of the remaining 1,191 miles!
Steve Meurett lives, works and plays in West Central Wisconsin and spends about every free moment outdoors where his passions lie. His outdoor interests take him on and off trail, pursuing mountain biking and skinny skiing, photography and hunting, while keeping an eye on wild mushrooms and the next fruit for craft wine. Steve is the Trail Director at The Levis Mound Trail System and member of the Clark County Trails Advisory Committee. He resides, teaches and is a photographer in Neillsville. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.