Monday, July 30, 2012

My Day with a Real Nomad

You may know that I have a soft spot in my heart for the Ice Age Trail.  I may not care about a lot of things in life (who needs housing or financial security when you have a tent and a packet of rice?), but the Ice Age Trail is something I care dearly about.  So when Nimblewill Nomad decided to hike the Trail this year, I jumped at the chance to help him.  There are 11 National Scenic Trails in America and Nimblewill has hiked 9 of them, leaving the Ice Age Trail and New England Trail as the final missing pieces of the National Scenic Trail Crown.  No one has ever hiked all 11 trails so Nimblewill taking up the IAT is a big deal.  Any publicity and awareness for the Trail is a good thing.

I emailed Nimblewill before his hike to put forth my services through the Devil’s Lake area because that’s where the Trail Crew is supposed to be stationed this year.  The Trail Crew would have to be up and running by mid-July right?  You would be sorely mistaken because spring and summer are not good months for trail work in Wisconsin.  The weather has been a little too perfect to let the Trail Crew work outside… 

Anyways, Nimblewill was bearing down on the Devil’s Lake area so I gave him a call still offering a hiking compatriot and whatever help I could provide.  He accepted.  We were going to meet around the Merrimac Ferry and figure things out from there.  I woke up “early” (morning comes quick after being tempted by a beer or two served by Jess at the Come Back the night before), threw my things together and headed towards Lodi.  It was only supposed to be 101 (“can’t be much more than 114.  Dock that guy a days pay for sleeping on the job”) so the temps weren’t going to be a problem. 

I parked at the ferry, loaded up my daypack and headed into the Gibraltar Segment.  I slipped across Hwy 113 and flashed back to my hike when Luke showed up at this point with a cold beer for me.  From reading Nimblewill’s journal, I concluded we have different priorities when it comes to beverages.  I was nearly to the top of the hill when this old, scraggly fellow came bounding down the trail.  This must be Nimblewill Nomad.  Experienced hikers have a certain look about them that distinguishes them from regular trail users.  We exchanged pleasantries and headed down to the ferry.

We just missed the ferry, but that was OK as I brought out a Sierra Mist for Nimblewill and a plate of homemade banana blueberry bread I had appropriated from my parents house the night before.  We planned out the day while waiting for the ferry to return.  We’d have breakfast at a café in Merrimac and then I’d drive my car up to the north shore of Devil’s Lake and ride my bike back to the Rozno’s Meadow parking lot and hike the rest of the day with Nimblewill.  Well, the café was closed so our plan was on shaky ground to start.  I headed off to enact my part of the plan while Nimblewill did the short road walk and started the Merrimac Segment. 

With my car parked, I hopped on my bike to get back to Rozno’s.  Holy cow was I struggling.  The first mile or so was all up hill and I’m apparently in pretty poor shape.  Getting off my bike to walk up the hill actually crossed my mind.  I survived this sad showing of fitness and was soon zipping down to the parking lot.  I stashed my bike in the woods and headed into the Merrimac Segment to meet up with Nimblewill.  As soon as I crossed DL heading towards the new 300-foot boardwalk constructed in April, I noticed a fence with a herd of goats grazing.  Hmm, they must be trying to contain the invasive species.  I walked up to the fence that crossed the Trail, wondering if it was electrified.  There was a group of people looking at the goats and said it was safe to cross.  Sure enough, I knew the guy who owned the goats.  It was Jesse from Driftless Land Stewardship whom I had a few beers with when I worked at Wyalusing.

I met back up with Nimblewill and we retraced my steps through the goat enclosure and the April Merrimac MSC project.  I had one more trick up my sleeve as I had left a cooler with water, Gatorade, apples, peaches and other snacks for us at the end of the Merrimac Segment.  We hydrated and ate a little before heading into the shade-less meadow. 

Walking with Nimblewill, I played the part of tour guide as I rambled on about the history and geology of the area.  I’m not sure if this was useful (or welcomed), but I kept at it (apparently I can talk about the Devil’s Lake area for a long time).  We crossed the park road and began our ascent up to the top of the East Bluff.  When I wasn’t talking about the park, we talked about hiking and the shared experiences long-distance hikers have.  The places and people change, but the underlying story is the same; strangers going out of their way to help the wandering few continue their trek with food, water, a shower or even just a conversation.  His stories come from a lot larger reservoir than mine so they are more impressive and awe-inspiring, like the day he hiked 54 miles (I guess that happens when he’s hiked 25,000 miles and I’ve only stumbled for 1,100). 

As we approached the top of the bluff and the accompanying views, I began to worry that maybe it wasn’t as impressive as I thought.  I mean Nimblewill has hiked all over the country (literally) and seen sights that few have seen, what does little ol’ Wisconsin have that can compare?  My worries were unfounded as the trees fell back and the full view presented itself.  “This is really nice,” claimed Nimblewill.  I pointed out the Wisconsin River and where he had walked so far that day.  He was particularly interested in all the rock climbers populating the bluffs.  Taut ropes at our feet were tied to rocks and other anchors as the climbers were defying gravity. 

We continued our amble along the bluff with the glacial plug to our left at the base of the bluff.  I coaxed him into taking the short Devil’s Doorway detour and when the feature came into view there was a girl squirming her way into the Doorway, her rear end prominently in view.  “Now I know why you wanted to come this way,” chuckled Nimblewill.  People don’t say Devil’s Doorway has one of the best views in the park for nothing! 

We joined back up with the East Bluff Trail and continued to the west end of the bluff.  People stopped us to ask for directions because they didn’t have a map and apparently we looked like we knew where we were going.  I directed them where they needed to go and we began our descent down Balanced Rock Trail.  I was excited for Nimblewill to walk through the talus field only to find that he’s been on other trails that have the same thing.  Does anything surprise him anymore? 

Our next destination was the South Shore Concession Stand.  I was expecting we’d get something to eat but Nimblewill isn’t a big eater (my stomach looked longingly at the ice cream sandwiches).  He had 3 sodas from the soda fountain and we were back on the trail.  I tend to putz around and take my time, but Nimblewill is like the breeze, never pausing for long in any one place (I’m assuming this is one of the reasons he’s able to pack on way more miles than me). 

We huffed it up to the top of the West Bluff to get a different perspective of the area.  Quite spectacular!  I pointed out the glacial plugs holding in the lake and how an old river had once flowed through the bluffs.  The view would’ve been awesome on that river because before the glacier advanced this far, the gorge was 300 feet deeper so 800-900 feet deep.  Those damn glaciers and their debris!

If there were one aspect of hiking that I’m quicker than Nimblewill at, it would be going up and down stairs (Take that old-timer!).  It was a sight to see when we got down to the beach, as this bedraggled hiker walked amongst the throng of beachgoers.  It would be safe to say, we had different priorities than the people at the beach.  We stopped at the concession stand on the north shore for more soda and to plan out the evening.  Nimblewill offered to buy me dinner for hiking with him so he asked a worker where a good spot to eat was.  I told him we don’t need to find a place to eat because we were going to The Barn.  Fat chance we’d go somewhere else in the Devil’s Lake area! 

He was going to continue hiking while I retrieved my bike and meet him at Solum Lane.  After thinking about how to describe the route through the campground, I decided it would be easier for me to just hike with him.  He would’ve gotten lost otherwise (well taken the wrong turn at least).  Signage was sparse throughout the Devil’s Lake Segment and Nimblewill was glad to have someone guiding him.  I’d be willing to bet it’s the most poorly signed segment along the entire Ice Age Trail.  This needs to be rectified.  Devil’s Lake has nearly 2 million visitors a year, with a great number of those hiking on segments of the Trail and not even knowing it.  It’s a huge publicity possibility that is currently not utilized. 

I picked up my bike and cooler and headed over to Solum Lane and meet up with Nimblewill.  It’s a different feeling hiking by yourself after hiking with someone all day.  Your thoughts stay inaudible and in your head.  Earlier In the day, Nimblewill told me that the Appalachian Trail would gnaw and bug me until I hiked it.  The AT is the Trail in the United States and your hiking career isn’t complete until you’ve reached Mt. Katahdin via Springer Mountain.  I had told Nimblewill about my East Coast road trip last winter and how I only saw Katahdin and would like to go back someday to explore more. 
He asked, “Do you know how to get to Katahdin?” 
“No,” I replied. 
“Start at Springer.”
I suppose he’s right.  While walking to meet him, thoughts of the AT danced around my head.  I have other trails I’d like to hike first though.  I’m doing the Border Route Trail up in the Boundary Waters with Brad this fall, maybe the Florida Trail this winter, maybe, and then the Superior Hiking Trail next spring.  I need to make money somewhere to fund my adventures so the AT is off in the future.  Nimblewill appeared and we headed out to my car. 

Me with Katahdin in the background.  Hopefully I'll be able to take this same picture at the end of a thru-hike. 
We got to The Barn and Nimblewill was amused that The Barn was actually a barn.  We like our barns in Wisconsin (especially ones that serve beer).  Amber greeted us when we walked in and took our spots at the bar.  Amber and The Barn are great supporters of the Ice Age Trail and the food is great to boot.  I got a beer while Nimblewill got his soda and we ordered our food (it’s rare for me not to have a beer after a day on the Trail).  Our conversation on hiking and trail magic continued through the meal as we passed stories back and forth, never silent for long.  It was a great time. 

I finished my beer and wondered if I should get another one so when Nimblewill stepped out to take a phone call, I quickly motioned Amber over to get me another beer.  Whew!  While he was out, I paid the tab.  I wasn’t going to let him get away with paying for our dinner (most readers will find this hard to believe).  He greatly appreciated the gesture and we headed out to find a campsite.  I brought my tent just in case I hadn’t overstayed my welcome and Nimblewill wanted the company.  We found a spot and set up camp.  I laughed when I saw his pack compared to mine.  I was only out for the night and he was hiking 1100 miles, but his pack was a third the size and weight of mine.  

I didn't get a picture of the packs, but I think this gives you the idea
My tent was also a lot larger than his noseeum mesh tent, specially made for him.  His trekking poles were used as tent poles, giving him more room than most single person ultra lightweight tents.  With camp set up, we resumed our conversations.  With a long day of hiking behind us, we soon retreated back to our tents.  I was caked in sweat as the heat persisted.  Eventually I passed out, only to be woken up an hour later by a crazy noise.  What the hell was that?  Here's a video with the sound.  I heard footsteps rustling around in the dry leaves and decided it was a deer, but that noise was crazy!  The deer must have been interested because it kept walking close to camp only to scamper away and return shortly to repeat it, all while making that weird noise.  Oh well.

Dawn arose and so did we.  As Nimblewill broke down his tent, I went through his maps writing in good places to stop (Strawberry Lady and Johann’s) and drawing in places where new trail has been added because he was using the old maps.  With that all squared away, Nimblewill said his daily morning prayer and we said our goodbyes.  It had been a wonderful experience hiking with the legend Nimblewill Nomad.  He was extremely welcoming and a great person to talk to.  I learned a lot from the veteran hiker and I hope I was able to make his walk through Devil’s Lake more enjoyable.  Perhaps our paths will cross again, perhaps not, either way, my day with a real Nomad was one I won’t forget.

As Nimblewill ambled away I thought of our conversation the previous night.
“Why did you hike the Ice Age Trail?”  That was Nimblewill’s question to me.  My token answer of “because I can” or “it was a goal” seemed shallow and weak when they flowed from my mouth and he didn’t buy it.  So why did I hike?  Deep down, I hiked because I needed to push myself.  Taking the easy route was/is second nature to me and has led me nowhere.  Hiking is primeval and humans have always done it.  They followed game into new lands and never stopped exploring what was around the corner.  This continued with the advent of boats, enabling humans to explore further and quicker than before.  When this wasn’t enough, we looked to the poles, space and the depths of the oceans.  The great explorations have ended so we need something to catch our imagination, something to celebrate.  Strapping a pack on your back with everything you need to survive and walking for hundreds or thousands of miles can fill the void of exploration.  Were exploring the land and ourselves.  So why do I hike?  I don’t know, I can’t put it into words.  Yet.


  1. Totally enjoyed reading this entry. You are a good writer. Keep it up.

  2. Dave,
    A real joy hiking Devil's Lake (and my final day on the IAT) with you. Thanks for being a memorable part of Odyssey 2012 IAT.
    God Bless,

  3. Thanks for writing this. Really enjoyed it.