Heather Burt and her dog Charlie explored the Plover River Segment of the Ice Age Trail in October 2013. / Heather Burt/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
With the worst of Wisconsin's mosquito-season behind us, I decided it was time to revisit the Plover River Segment of the Ice Age Trail. Armed with the knowledge of this trail earned earlier this summer, I doused myself with bug spray just to be on the safe side although it quickly became clear this would be unnecessary.
Instead of sprinting through the woods to evade swarms of mosquitoes, as I did back in June, this was now a leisurely and peaceful hike. The trail was so different from the lush, green tropical forest that I experienced at the beginning of summer, leaving me with the feeling that I was on a completely new trail, rather than one I knew. The river was just as clear and beautiful as I remembered it, but this time it was framed by colorful trees. Fallen leaves floated past and river rocks were more visible with the lower water level. It's at once obvious why this is a Class I, high-quality trout stream sustaining wild-trout population - the water is unbelievably crystal clear!
The Ice Age Trail Mobile Skills Crew has done a fantastic job finishing up this segment. Now, instead of wandering in circles trying to figure out where the trail was when I reached the river crossing, a newly installed bench across the river beckoned me to hop the river boulders to the other side. I took a break on the bench to sit and contemplate the sound of the water babbling over the rocks as Charlie went off in search of sticks for me to throw. As I sat there, I became aware of a buzzing sound nearby; a swarming, buzzing sound. I looked up and saw that bees had made a nest in a knot hole in the pine tree above the bench. Not wanting to take a chance getting stung, we quickly moved on.
The fall colors intensified as we continued on into the forest to the top of the winding ridge of a moraine. We were surrounded by a rainbow of colors in every direction and the dwindling leaf cover allowed for wide open views. Even though the autumn colors aren't as vivid as they typically can be, probably due to drought conditions this summer, there is still a show to be seen.
It's a new feeling walking this trail after having gained so much hiking experience throughout the summer. I'm familiar with how to read my trail maps, estimating distances, understanding how temperatures and weather conditions will affect my hydration needs, and automatically watching for the yellow blazes marking the trail. It's funny how the yellow blaze has become such a familiar beacon; I hardly realize how often my eyes search them out and how much comfort they provide in knowing I am on the right track. The yellow blaze has become a friend of sorts.
As the trail winds its way back toward the Plover River, rocks and boulders again protrude from the earth as tree roots twist themselves into fantastic shapes around them. With the loss of leaves and plants on the forest floor, these root sculptures are more easily seen. I began "seeing" shapes in them, just as a child would do with passing clouds in the sky. A tree and all its roots were completely and unbelievably secured to the top of a huge moss-covered boulder, looking more like a pterodactyl skull or a giant flamingo head than a tree root.
Tiny islands interspersed throughout the river sustain trees, plants and shrubs, all covered in soft green moss. The river flows through and around these mini-villages, providing habitat for countless fish, amphibians and other forest-dwellers. I noticed several small, black frogs near the riverbank and tried my best not to step on any of them. Without the horrendous mosquitoes that we experienced last time we were here, it was such a relaxing feeling to slow down and have the opportunity to observe the landscape. Numerous and enormous rocks seem to pop up everywhere. The trees are undaunted by their presence and just grow around them. Sometimes I'm amazed that there is a trail to be found in the maze of tree roots and rocks, but then ahead I'll see a yellow blaze and know I'm on the right track.
As we made our way back toward the parking lot, I was delighted and amazed to find the same small skull next to the trail that we had seen back in June. In the four months since we were last here, the skull and surrounding area was completely untouched - just as we had left it. It's admirable that other trail users have respected the "do not disturb" policy of the trail and have left things just as they found them so that others can enjoy the wild beauty too. It was another awesome hike on a trail that was at once familiar but also new and different. Changing seasons, rotating vegetation and weather can make even the most familiar trail feel like a new adventure!
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.