Saturday, August 31, 2013

Day 1 in brief

Working off my phone, so this will be short. Got an early start to beat the heat and got three segments done. Total mileage: 32. More tomorrow when I can use my laptop. Life is good.

Friday, August 30, 2013


Call me Valderi. As in that catchy refrain from "The Happy Wanderer" -- Valderi, Valdera, Valderi, Valdera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, Valderi, Valdera, my knapsack on my back."

After I made my last post about being bad at names, this one instantly came to me. And it's perfect. My parents, four siblings and myself were all born in Chicago. We were city folk through and through. Heck, I remember biking to a glass factory with my two older siblings for fun, so we could play with the colorful, broken glass bits in the parking lot.

We moved to Wisconsin when I was 8. One of my first memories of Wisconsin was when my mom loaded the five of us kids in the car and took us hiking along the Parnell Tower Trail -- part of the Ice Age Trail (Northern Kettle). As we marched through the woods, my mom made us sing "The Happy Wanderer" with her. So Valderi I am.

So today Ed and I drove up to St. Croix Falls. We stopped at Interstate State Park to watch the 24-minute movie on the Ice Age Trail's geologic history (informative, if a bit campy). We scoped out the trail's path through town, rumored to be not that well marked. Looks O.K. other than one section. We'll see how things go tomorrow! I'm so excited. It's kind of like Christmas Eve when you were a kid.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

What's in a name - Part II

When I first began reading about long-distance hiking, I filled my head with tales of the Appalachian Trail (AT). One of the aspects of thru-hiking the AT that really caught my fancy was the tradition of trail names. A trail name is a nickname hikers use instead of their real one. You can choose one yourself, but if you don't choose one quickly enough, one can be bestowed upon you. For better or for worse.

Did hikers use trail names on the Ice Age Trail? Or was it too new, too "still-in-development" to warrant this? I didn't know, but I quickly decided that if I ever thru-hiked the IAT, I was going to give myself a trail name. A really cool one.

Well, here I am 1.5 days out, and I haven't had a minute to think of a trail name. Another problem? I'm not gifted with easily dreaming up catchy names Just ask the members of the former Sun Prairie Surprise, a relay team I led. And, yes, named. (In my defense, I was put on the spot and had to give a name within 60 seconds.)

To make matters more urgent, a few seconds ago I got an email from IAT helper extraordinaire, Sharon Dziengel. Sharon told me there are a handful of other thru-hikers out there right now, all hiking east to west, who I will meet as I head west to east. There's a Mother Goose, a Papa Bear and a Hiking Dude. Also a Joseph, a Pat and a Kehly.

I want to be with the former group come Saturday morning. I don't want to be "Melanie" for the next month. So if any of you want to suggest a cool trail name, I'll give it my full consideration. But I get the final say.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What's in a name?


Every segment of the Ice Age Trail that's been created has a name. Part of the reason I'm so anxious to get started is to explore the segments with the most intriguing names. Like the Kettlebowl, Lumbercamp, Timberland Wilderness, Stony Ridge and Southern Blue Hills. All of those sound pretty rugged.

There are lots of segments named after lakes: Firth Lake. Jerry Lake. Harwood Lakes. Lake Eleven. Trivia: Wisconsin has +14,000 lakes, which bests our western neighbor, Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes. And actually, Minnesota has just under 12,000, so I'm not sure why they shorted themselves in their moniker. But I digress.

There are also numerous segments named after rivers or creeks: Trade River, Straight River, Waupaca River, Mecan River; and La Budde Creek, Sand Creek and McKenzie Creek, to name a few.

Mondeaux Esker, Camp 27, Underdown and Table Bluff sound a bit mysterious. Holy Hill vies with Devil's Staircase. And Grandfather Falls, Ringle and Scuppernong? Well, they just sound fun.

On Day 1, coming up Saturday, I'll spend many miles on the Gandy Dancer segment, a name that makes me smile. I actually found some Gandy Dancer stout, made by Wisconsin's own Potosi Brewery, in the store the other day. You can bet I'll be sipping an ice-cold Gandy Dancer come Saturday night.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Traveling with my Buddy

These days, whenever I travel I've always got company: Buddy, the SATW traveling teddy. Much like that paper dude, Flat Stanley, Buddy goes with me whenever I leave home. He gets to explore interesting places all over the globe, takes lots of photos and writes about his experiences to kids in two classrooms: the first graders in Mrs. Marsha Herman's class at West Side Elementary in Sun Prairie, and the second graders in Mr. Tim McManus' class at Sherman Elementary in Eau Claire. After my travels, Buddy and I usually visit the classrooms in person, and answer questions the kids have. Sometimes Buddy brings them little gifts from his travels: pencils, candy, a CD of local music, etc.

To date Buddy has been with me to Spain, Wales, Wisconsin's new "Schooner Coast" along Lake Michigan and Sacramento/Sonoma California. Once the 2013-14 school year starts, he'll be telling his new student-friends about his summer travels to Arkansas, and then they'll start following him along the Ice Age Trail with me. Buddy and I are both excited about our upcoming adventure.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ticks, black bears and more ticks -- oh my!

I never contemplated wildlife or insects when I decided to run the Ice Age Trail. Pretty stupid, I know. I mean, I'll be moving through lots of woods and wetlands, so obviously I'll be encountering ... things.

On the Camino in Spain, I actually rarely saw wildlife. I did walk through a lot of sheep pastures (not scary), through some Iberian pig pastures (a little scary) and through cattle pastures (pretty scary). There were lots of barking dogs that could be unnerving, and twice I encountered some aggressive dogs who I was sure were going to take a piece of me home with them (thankfully, they didn't). But really, there wasn't any wildlife to speak of. So it just wasn't on my mind with the Ice Age Trail. Until I attended the annual conference in Dresser this past April.

During the conference, two men who had thru-hiked the IAT last year mentioned spotting black bears. Gulp. Living in the southern part of Wisconsin, I never realized we had bears ambling around our northern forests. They assured me that black bears like to leave humans alone, and there was no reason to worry. I calmed myself down, figuring I could handle a bear or two, but then they got on the subject of ticks.

One guy said during certain portions of his hike he wiped hundreds (that's right, HUNDREDS) of ticks off each arm, only to find them covered again a mere 5 minutes later. So he just walked all day covered in ticks, then cleaned himself off at the end of the day. I stopped listening at that point. I felt sick. All I could think was, "Well, I'll just have to cancel my run. I'll call the editors and cancel my story assignments." A few black bears I could handle. Weeks alone in the woods and on lonely roads I could handle. But hundreds and hundreds of ticks all over me? No way.

Luckily I snapped back to attention just in time to hear the guys say tick season is roughly April-June, with ticks starting to decline in July, and then dying out completely starting in fall. Phew! I'd inadvertently picked just the right time to tackle the trail. My plans were back on.

So if, like me, you can't stand the thought of hiking covered in ticks, now you know fall and winter are the seasons to tackle the trail.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Training for 1,200 miles

One common question I get is how I'm training for this trek. Well, I'm not. Sounds a bit reckless, so let me explain.

I love to run, and go 10+ miles several times a week, so my body is used to distance. The days I don't run, I'm on the elliptical or pool running. I also take a core ball class every week, which helps with strength and balance, crucial on tricky creek crossings and the like.I've also run along the Vía de la Plata Camino in Spain many times, so I'm used to covering long distances day after day after day. Still, over time I've found these strategies to make my long-distance running much easier: 
  • Alternating running with some walking, which switches up the muscles I'm using. 
  • Alternating footwear every other day, which prevents hot spots and blisters. 
  • Taking an ice bath or cold shower at the end of every day's run/hike, plus using the "Stick" to massage sore spots. 
  • Eating and drinking plenty. 
  • Getting lots of rest.

People also wonder how I can stand being by myself all day, every day, for weeks. Don't I get lonely? Well, sure. But I talk to innkeepers and restaurateurs every night, plus whoever I bump into along the trail. I call or text my family daily. Plus I have interesting, lively conversations with myself. It's great because I never interrupt myself, and listen raptly to my every word.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Why am I doing this?

When people take on challenges, it’s often the result of many seemingly random events. One after another these events occur, silently weaving themselves together in your subconscious, until they take on a form you recognize. And can’t resist.

A running buddy, Jason Dorgan, ran the Ice Age Trail back in 2007. He completed it in an astonishing 22 days, setting a thru-hike record. That was the first random event that lodged itself in the back of my mind, although I didn’t know it at the time. In 2009 I ran part of the Vía de la Plata, a 1,000-kilometer ancient pilgrimage trail in Spain, so I could write some travel stories about it. The trail was confusing, and there were no English-language guidebooks to help hikers, so I often got lost. After I wrote my travel articles about the trail, I returned and ran the whole thing, then created a guidebook app about it. Thread #2 in my subconscious Ice Age tapestry.

Next, a publisher sent me a copy of a soon-to-be-released book for review — Becoming Odyssa. I'm sent books occasionally, and almost never read them, because I don't write book reviews. But for some reason I read this one. The story is about a young woman who walks the Appalachian Trail, then returns to run it, setting the women’s thru-hike record in the process. With Odyssa's story fresh in my mind, I learned my older daughter’s friend would be hiking the Appalachian Trail shortly. And then I was assigned a story on tips for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Suddenly, long- distance hiking and hikers were everywhere I turned.   

In early 2012, Jason was reminiscing about his IAT adventure while on a group run. I asked a few questions, and was surprised to learn only about 70 people had thru-hiked the trail to date. A little more research at home revealed only three of those 70-some folks were women. Just three!

All of these random events, woven together over the last few years, now formed a message that muscled its way into the forefront of my conscious thoughts. Run the Ice Age Trail. I loved the idea and knew I was destined to do it. Still, I hesitated to set a date. It would take 4-5 weeks. Who can afford to leave home and work that long? 

Then, sadly, several relatives and friends succumbed to serious illnesses. One died. It was time to plan my adventure. Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Or, as kids say today, YOLO. I set the date: August 31, 2013. 

And that’s how I got here.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

T minus 17 days

And so it begins. Final preparations for my latest adventure, "thru-running" Wisconsin's Ice Age National Scenic Trail. 

Everyone is asking why I’m doing this. And a lot of people – Wisconsinites included don’t even really know what the Ice Age Trail (IAT) is. I sure didn’t realize the extent of this great treasure of ours until I was deep into my preparations. So let me enlighten you.

The Ice Age Trail gently traces the edge of Wisconsin’s last glaciation. Winding 1,200 miles up, down and across the state, the path begins at the St. Croix River in northwestern Wisconsin, heads east across half the state, then dips south almost to the Illinois border before swooping back north, ending in Sturgeon Bay. Actually, you can start the trail at either end – the Eastern or Western Terminus – but since I’m going west to east, and you read left to right, I say the St. Croix River/Western Terminus is the trail's start.

It’s not easy for a trail to become designated a National Scenic Trail. There are only 10 others in the nation, including the well-known Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. Further, the IAT is one of only three National Scenic Trails that lie all within one state (the others being the Arizona and Florida National Scenic Trails). The Ice Age Trail is in pretty elite company. Most residents have no clue.

The idea for the Ice Age Trail came way back in the 1950s, courtesy of a Milwaukeean named Ray Zillmer. But like most long-distance trails, it's taking decades to complete. You have to purchase land, or get permission from landowners to let hikers pass through. You have to develop and maintain trails and install signage. It takes a lot of money, and a lot of work. So far about half of the IAT is completed, or about 600 miles, with the remaining 600 currently along suggested "connecting routes," largely county roads that run roughly along the areas where trails are hoped to be developed in the future.