When my bud Missouri Howell recently suggested we hike the Kettle Moraine North section of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail together, I accepted immediately,though with much trepidation. Jeff is a machine when hiking – he recently hiked 32 miles in 10 hours for charity. I’m old and out of shape, so 10 miles or so and I’m happy to call it a day. Jeff’s plan on the Ice Age was two days of strenuous hiking at 18 and 14 miles respectively. On the positive side, we were planning on staying in a shelter, so a lot less gear was required. (I still brought a lightweight one-man tent, just in case, but it really wasn’t needed.)
The Kettle Moraine Northern Unit is made up of about 30,000 acres of multi-use land (hiking, snowmobiling, camping etc) and is located in Wisconsin’s Sheboygan, Fond du Lac and Washington Counties. While there are no overtly steep or long climbs, nor a major elevation gain, from experience elsewhere on the trail, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
We met at a restaurant for breakfast, drove up to the southern trailhead to drop off Jeff’s car, then drove to the northern trailhead to start our adventure. Cool weather made for nice hiking and no bugs! We almost immediately got into the undulating rhythm of the trail, altered only by some flatter sections atop the ridges. Dummy me forgot to fill up my water bottle ahead of time, though research had shown there was water every 8 miles or so, so it wasn’t dire straights. Our first attempt was a failure, however, as we couldn’t get the pump going at Shelter 5 – in retrospect, we didn’t work hard enough at it and probably could have gotten water there, but I was feeling good and the day was pleasant, so worries were at a minimum, if they existed at all. A side trip to the Parnell Tower netted me amazing views (Jeff elected to save his energy and return another day), a belly and bottle full of water, and an additional 1-1 1/2 miles of walking, as it was off the main trail a bit.
As I thought, I started to flag a bit at mile 10 or so, and by mile 15, I felt pretty defeated, with legs, butt, and lower back aching with every step. At Butler Lake, I let Jeff know that I was feeling done and that I probably wouldn’t be hiking the second day. We refilled our water bottles and he counseled me to finish the day, sleep on it, and make the decision in the morning. Feeling properly chastised, I agreed and we pushed on. At the lake, I also took the opportunity to down a beet shot from Red Ace Organics – I can’t say it was the product or the fact that they were my first calories since breakfast, but at about mile 16 and a bit I started feeling a lot better. Still hurting, but feeling like I could finish better than I thought.
We finally got to the shelter almost a mile off the main trail and got ready for dinner and sleeping. With how sore and tired I felt, it didn’t take long for me to fall asleep. I woke several times to the soothing sounds of Jeff’s various snores – I accepted them graciously, knowing that his night would be much worse with my legendary snoring to cope with.
Since the forecast had foretold it, we weren’t surprised to wake to steady wind and rain as a storm pummeled the area. We knew that the entire day was going to be a wet hike, as the storm was expected to last a lot longer than we were on the trail. After a hot breakfast and packing up, we decided to head out and see how far we could get – I actually felt a lot better; still sore and tired, but not insurmountable difficulties. Jeff was having some foot issues, so as walking wounded we were pretty evenly matched. Happily, this second day of hiking turned out to be easier than the first – only 14 miles and a lot less rocks and roots than the previous day. While there were still plenty of ups and downs, there were also longer sections of flat walking, which made things a lot more bearable.
Once again, after about 10 miles I found myself struggling on the uphills and downhills, though I felt pretty good on the flat sections. Downing my second beet shot, I soon got a second wind and I knew I was going to be able to finish. Of course, the axiom that the last miles are the longest held true and wouldn’t you know it, the storm decided to up the ante the last mile plus – definitely the hardest rain and wind happened at that time. Of course, by that time we were pretty well wet, so a bit more wasn’t going to change much.
After the longest finishing mile in the history of hiking, we finally reached the southern trailhead and then only had a bit more to reach the car. Such a relief to sit down, but I was also worried that I wouldn’t be able to get myself out of Jeff’s car and into my own, let alone drive myself the 3 hours home. This is where I openly avow my desire for a self-driving vehicle to drive me at times like these. After driving back to the northern trailhead, we parted ways – it took me some time to peel off my wet clothes and get into some comfy dry apparel, but I accomplished that and got ready to head home. Overall, I felt pretty good, surprisingly – very achy and tired, and a possible toenail loss in the not too distant future, but I was glad we had done it and I was extra happy that Jeff hadn’t let me quit.