When will you ever have the chance to hike under both lanes of a freeway and through the wooded median? Well that's exactly what I did last weekend! Amazingly, this was not something I had planned on doing, rather the opportunity literally fell into my lap.
Charlie and I were on a road trip, heading south on I-39 toward the southwest corner of the state, for a family visit last Saturday. I pulled off at the Rest Area just past Coloma for a bathroom break, and instead of parking in the truck parking area (where the designated "pet area" is located), I decided to be a rebel and park in the car parking area. To avoid bothering people in the picnic area, I parked at the far end and planned to walk Charlie through the tall grassy area away from the picnic tables. As I put the car in park, I looked up to see a sign that read "Ice Age Trail." Huh. This is a Rest Area that I have been to about a billion times and I have NEVER noticed this sign! I stood in front of the sign, looking at the maps under the plexiglass for about 5 minutes, not really sure if what I was reading was true. Did I really just arrive at a segment without having planned this?
Even though we were running late and had a long drive ahead of us, there was no way I was going to skip this opportunity to set foot (and paw) on another segment of the Ice Age Trail... especially since it was practically handed to me on a silver platter. I grabbed my little backpack, strapped Charlie into her harness, and off we went!
I was completely unprepared for this hike. I didn't have my IAT maps or companion guide, I had no idea what kind of terrain to expect or how long this segment was. I wasn't wearing proper hiking gear and regrettably didn't even change out of my tennis shoes into my hiking boots (which were in the back seat of the car). Surprisingly, none of that mattered; I was on an adventure! I found that the "not knowing" was more fun than being thoroughly prepared (although I wished for my hiking boots the whole time). The day was beautiful: 75 degrees, blue sky with occasional fluffy white clouds, a simple breeze stirring the fragrance of prairie grass and flowers - the perfect summer day! We walked up the Rest Area off-ramp until we reached the signpost for the IAT and headed down the embankment onto a mowed grassy trail. The trail wound through a beautiful prairie flitting with butterflies, eventually leading to the Chaffee Creek bridge. The shallow, but swiftly-flowing water in this creek is crystal clear and the sandy bottom was luring me in! I let Charlie cool herself off in the water before continuing on back into the meadow. The trail was leading us close to the highway now. Were we going to walk along the highway for part of the segment? As we got closer, I saw a culvert running under the highway and quickly realized that the trail was going to take us through the culvert. The banks of the creek were getting soft and as we approached the culvert, I realized my tennis shoes were most likely going to get wet if we continued on. I debated for a moment whether we should turn back, but the lure of adventure won and we gingerly stepped through the muck into the culvert. Inside the culvert, there was a wide sidewalk (although a little wet and mucky in some spots) but surprisingly no huge bugs or bats to contend with. I continued to be amazed at the crystal-clear quality of the creek flowing past us. After emerging back into sunlight, it took me a minute to realize we were now in the median of the freeway. I watched the cars passing by and chuckled at the thought of what they must think of seeing this girl with a pink backpack and yellow dog in the median! As we approached the northbound lane, Charlie began to get spooked by the sound of the cars zipping past. This time, we crossed below the highway via an overpass, not a culvert, and the echoing sound of the cars as they drove above us freaked Charlie out even more. She did not want to stick around and enjoy the beauty of the creek; she bolted and pulled me up the embankment and into the quiet woods on the other side. Now in Waushara County, we walked a little ways into the woods enjoying the serene quiet away from the highway and listened to birds chattering in the trees. I stopped to apply bug spray (just in case) and was immediately swarmed by biting flies... I guess they were having a hard time landing on me due to the fast pace we were keeping, but once I stopped, they took full advantage! Because we were under a time constraint (and hadn't planned on hiking today anyway), we turned back before getting too much farther. It was a great opportunity to stretch our legs and breathe in some fresh air before continuing on our journey. Now I had a fun adventure to share with my family when I arrived for dinner, where we dined on venison tacos and beet & feta salad while enjoying good company and good conversation. Upon returning home Sunday night, I couldn't wait to look up the trail segment in my companion guide and read about where we had been. It's a rather short segment - only 2.2 miles - and I believe Charlie and I hiked about half of it before back-tracking to the Rest Area, which took about an hour in total. My tennis shoes were not as soaked as I had thought they would be, but I know I would have been far more comfortable wearing my waterproof hiking boots and wouldn't have had to think twice about entering the mucky spots. Next time I'll definitely be prepared for "accidentally" running across an IAT segment and I'll keep my maps and companion guide in the car from now on. I wasn't surprised to learn that this segment is home to unique flora and contains over 100 native plant species; the aroma drifting across the meadow deliciously elicited memories of childhood summers and the total freedom that brings. With school starting only a few weeks from now, this time of year is always bittersweet... so little time to enjoy the long, warm days of summer before crisp cool autumn days are upon us.
If you are hitting the road on a final summer road trip, be aware of hiking opportunities at Rest Areas and Waysides... you never know what you'll find! I had no plans or intentions of hiking the Ice Age Trail this weekend, but it found me anyway... and as always, I couldn't resist!
Heather Burt documents the ongoing journey with her dog as they play, hike and road-trip around Wisconsin in her blog www.HikingWithHeather.blogspot.com. Burt hopes to bring awareness to our state's bountiful natural beauty while encouraging people to enjoy nature.