Blazing a new trail

One of the great failings in environmental debate is the tendency to view environmentalism as an ethic that removes humans from the equation. Such rhetoric comes from both the for-and-against extremes, doing a great a disservice to the sensible middle. The tree-huggers envision a return to bucolic ecosystems of yesteryear despite those systems’ need to somehow accommodate 7 billion human beings. Meanwhile their opponents argue society’s economic health comes first, not realizing that whatever we do to the environment, we do to ourselves.

Here in Wisconsin, we sit in the sensible middle. It’s a state with a tremendous environmental legacy — the modern movement was set in motion by our former governor, U.S. senator and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson. Yet it’s no Wyoming or Utah, where areas the size of small Eastern states are set aside for parkland. Even in its sparsely populated northern reaches, Wisconsin doesn’t have undeveloped space on that scale. There’s tourism. There are Northwoods cabin getaways. There’s the timber industry. In other words, there are people.

IMG_2077As a result, we sometimes see environmentalism operate at the micro rather than macro level. Yes, there are state parks and national forests managed via vast bureaucracies that we trust have the right intentions. But there are times when the local folks take the reins. Case in point: The Ice Age trail.

OK, it’s technically the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. But that’s a federal designation bestowed only after tireless volunteers at the local level organized the patchwork project into something viable. It’s a success story brought to light in Melanie Radzicki McManus’ recently published “Thousand-Miler: Adventures in Hiking the Ice Age Trail.” In chronicling her attempt to complete the 1,100 miles approximating the furthest glacial advance of the last Ice Age, McManus highlights a state treasure hidden in plain sight.

There are two gratifying components to the Ice Age trail. First, it came together not via governmental decree but organically out of residents’ desire to set aside some green space within their communities. That desire reflected a number of favored recreational activities — camping, hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, horseback riding, biking and, yes, hiking. Secondly, it’s here in Wisconsin. You don’t have to go to Appalachia or the Mountain West to enjoy a world-class outdoors experience.

As McManus’ tale shows, this is hardcore hiking. Eleven hundred miles is not for beginners. Yet the culture, supported by a quasi-governing body called the Ice Age Trail Alliance, is one that encourages participation. McManus’ attempt qualifies as a “thru hike,” meaning the person pounds the trail — for weeks, months, however long it takes — until they’ve finished it from end to end. They rest each night, either camping or staying at local motels or the homes of “trail angels” — local volunteers who offer a bed, a hot meal or a ride to the next trailhead, where the hike continues. However, many people “section hike,” or complete portions as time allows, returning to their homes and jobs in the meantime, until they’ve done each piece comprising the trail. It doesn’t matter if it takes years. They’re given credit as finishers right along with the thru-hikers.

Either way you do it, it’s no walk in the park. McManus encounters a number of serious medical issues, mostly with her feet (not uncommon for distance hikers), that threaten to derail her. There are bears and wolves, particularly in the northern segments, while connecting highway routes can pose hazardous traffic. Mosquitoes and ticks, along with overgrown vegetation that impedes rougher portions of the trail, take their toll on exposed skin. But the biggest pain McManus contends with is losing her way. The yellow blazes affixed to sign posts and trees indicate the official route, but posts and trees sometimes fall over. Fast-growing vegetation can hide signs, leading hikers to unwittingly take a wrong turn or continue on when they should turn.

“Thousand-Miler” is at heart an adventure story, deftly sprinkled with educational components about the history and current operation of the trail, but the book’s most charming asset is its equal amounts of affection for people and place. Distance hiking has its own subculture, and McManus meets a number of characters on the trail, each with his or her own reasons, and strategies, for walking it. As a thru-hiker, she also benefits from the assistance of family members, friends and trail angels who serve as her crew, supplying her with food and water midhike, ferrying her to and from the night’s lodging and, most importantly, providing moral support. While an 1,100-mile hike affords the solitude and reflection of a personal journey, it becomes clear that there’s more to the story than one woman and the vast wilderness.

McManus acknowledges as much near the end of the book. Her own quest complete, she relates a recent effort by a veterans’ group to send military service members returning from war zones out on the trail. The idea is to plan and complete a hike as a way of therapeutically reintegrating into civilian life. The natural spaces give the veterans room to breath, while their reliance on support from family, friends and trail angels remind them of the goodness in humanity. They find peace through the land, and its people.

All of this comes together through the preservation of natural spaces. Score one for the tree huggers. But it’s a broader experience than traipsing through pristine forests undisturbed by human influence and hearing birds chirp unperturbed by human voices. What sense is there in creating an 1,100-mile trail if there’s no one there to hike it — or write about it? This is environmentalism in totality — one that has a place for people.

 

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