When I talked to Bart Smith this autumn, it wasn’t all that long after he had finished a hike that took him at least 15,000 miles around the U.S., including around 1,200 in Wisconsin.
Bart is a photographer who has walked all eight of the National Park Service’s national scenic trails. That includes the Ice Age Trail, established in 1980, and his “Along Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail” book (UW Press, $24.95) is a four-season tribute to the subtle beauty and bounty that distinguishes our part of the world.
“I’d call it a mission – tough but wonderful,” he says of the project, and photography “has been a way for me to share my wonder about living in this amazing world.”
The work began with his hike of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail from 1992-94, then publication of “Along the Pacific Crest Trail” (Westcliffe Publishers, $45).
“It just kind of evolved,” from one trail and book to the next, says the resident of Tacoma, Wash. He was born in Madison, where his father was a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin.
The family hiked, canoed and examined environments together – regardless of where they lived – so it felt natural for Bart to continue his appreciation of nature as an adult. Getting reacquainted with Wisconsin meant revisiting Door County, where the Ice Age Trail begins at Potawatomi State Park, then heads south toward Algoma.
The trail, which follows the twisting terminus (outline) of Wisconsin’s last glacier, ends at the border with Minnesota (at Interstate State Park, St. Croix). About 60 percent of state residents live within 20 miles of the route.
Bart and I agree that Wisconsin’s landscape tends to be gentle, not in-your-face dramatic, “so my photography was more intimate – with a lot of little details, like leaves on dewdrops.”
It has been 40 years since the signing of the National Trails System Act, and Bart finished his last trail exploration – the Continental Divide – shortly before speaking at an anniversary party for the trails system this month in Washington, D.C.
“Every trail has its own character and allure,” he writes.
Bart describes Wisconsin’s Ice Age landscape as “some 15,000 years in the making, created by the forces of glaciers. The Ice Age Trail is now 50 years in the making, created by the forces of volunteers. They have conspired to create a trail that is unique to the world and a testament to the character of Wisconsin.”
Essays by people who love Wisconsin complement the book’s photography. So does poetry from Ellen Kort of Appleton, the state’s first poet laureate. She writes, for example, of morning fog:
“The long reach of landscape
is wrapped in morning fog
like a beautifully veiled woman
I wonder how she looks
in the moonlight.”
The Ice Age Trail exists and grows in length because of the work of volunteers. Just roughly one-third of the $750,000 annual operating budget comes from the public sector; the rest stems from memberships, donations and foundation grants.
“We’re such a quiet, unnoticeable group – we don’t wear uniforms or helmets to identify us,” says Mike Wollmer, executive director of the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation, based in the trail town of Cross Plains (Dane County).
The organization’s 21 chapters have 3,400 members who donate 50,000-plus hours annually. Up to 600 miles of trail work remains.
“We’re always fighting development,” Mike says, regarding the work to obtain or retain public trail access. He considers the trail “our backbone” because of the cultural, social, geological and history lessons it represents.
As a child, he’d hike and camp in the Kettle Moraine, sometimes following what is now the Zillmer trails, named after the Milwaukee outdoorsman who established the Ice Age Trail foundation.
“That lit a fire in me,” Mike says, and “45 years later, the spark rekindled itself” when he began trail volunteer work in the 1990s.
Hike a part of it yourself, he advises, even when the peak of fall color has passed. “Now is the time of year when you start seeing things – the geography, terrain, wildlife movement, the glacial effect on the land – that you don’t see with the leaves on.”
How many people do as he says? “I’ll never know,” Mike admits, because much of the Ice Age Trail is open to the public without cost. The exceptions are parts that are shared with other trails or parks that have user fees.
For more about the Ice Age Trail: www.iceagetrail.org, 800-227-0046. The website contains information about membership and making donations.
Also online is an events calendar, which includes the location of trail hikes and work parties throughout the state.
Learn more about the Ice Age Trail at three interpretive centers: Henry S. Reuss Ice Age Visitor Center, N1765 Hwy. G, Campbellsport, 262-626-2116; Chippewa Moraine, 13394 Hwy. M, New Auburn, 715-967-2800; and inside Interstate State Park, at Hwys. 35 and 8, St. Croix Falls, 715-483-3747.
The eight national scenic trails are the North Country (4,600 miles), Continental Divide (3,100), Pacific Crest (2,638), Appalachian (2,175), Florida (1,400), Ice Age (1,200), Potomac Heritage (830) and Natchez Trace (500).
For more about these picturesque and historically important byways, consult www.nps.gov.
A ninth trail has been proposed, in New England.
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