Return to the wilderness

I lived in Arizona for six years as a kid and camping was a significant part of my life. I was a Boy Scout for three years, caring more about pitching tents and cooking over a fire than progressing through the ranks. My family also camped a lot, mostly in the stretch between Sedona and Lees Ferry between Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon. I camp out much less frequently today; when I do, I like to go backpacking to see things you can only see by walking there.

It turns out that a friend of mine also likes backpacking, so we decided to give it a try this summer. We decided to traverse about 12 miles of the Ice Age Trail in eastern Wisconsin, specifically in the Kettle-Moraine State Forest (Northern Unit). We were a little surprised to find out that the campsites had both wooden shelters, but hey – no tents needed!

Friday

We left Chicago around mid-morning for the drive north. We made good time, especially after getting over the Wisconsin border. We stopped in Port Washington to have lunch at the Twisted Willow. After a hearty lunch (peach/almond bruschetta, mac and cheese, meat loaf), we drove to the state forest and trailhead. We took 15-20 minutes to get the car parked and ourselves ready to hike, and then headed south.

Wildflowers at the entrance.

We stopped by our campsite for the evening and were pleased to see that the shelter was in good condition and that it had a well-maintained pit toilet (no spade needed!). We kept going south for a few more miles before heading back north, past the campsite back to the entrance to refill on water. Then back to the campsite for the evening, having walked about six miles. I’d purchased a Jetboil for this trip and it worked perfectly, heating two cups of water in about 90 seconds for our freeze-dried food. I was carrying all our food in a bear canister, which made it easy to store our food away from the shelter (no need to hang the food up). We went to bed as the sun went down so we could get an early start.

Saturday

I woke up before dawn, maybe around 4:30am. I started moving about 5:15am to get my stuff packed and have some coffee. That got my friend going as well, and we enjoyed breakfast on the bench outside the shelter (coffee for me, tea for her). Then we were off, heading north to Butler Lake before doubling back to our shelter for that night. We stopped at the park entrance again for water (you can never have enough when backpacking) before starting into new territory for us.

The area is very marshy, so we had various flying insects as constant companions despite the insect repellent we both used. We agreed we’d get head netting for our next trip. Other than that, we had a very enjoyable hike north through the forest. At the start, we were close to Mauthe Lake, a popular campground, but eventually made it into places where we barely saw anyone.

The trail doesn’t include a lot of overall elevation – maybe 150 feet in variance over the entire day. However, you go up and down almost continuously, to the point that my friend’s watch noted we’d gone up and down some sixty stories that day. We were very glad to have our trekking poles in both directions to help us up and prevent falling on the way down.

We stopped at our evening shelter, which turned out to be 0.7 miles off the trail through a lot of grass. We found the shelter in good shape but the pit toilet unfortunately less so (a disappointment after the previous evening). We then left to complete our hike to Butler Lake, which was less busy than Mauthe Lake but had plenty of people around. We stopped to eat and fill up on water from the pump at the entrance before heading back to the shelter. Our total distance for the day: thirteen miles. We spent the afternoon reading and managed to get dinner ready before a rainstorm settled in. Thankfully, the shelter kept us completely dry.

Sunday

We were motivated to get moving very early and were on the trail at 6:45am. We were heading back south to the entrance and our car, so this was a repeat of the previous day from a scenic perspective. Nonetheless, we very much enjoyed the early morning sun through the trees, giving the forest a different feel from the previous day.

We covered the six miles back to the car in under three hours, arriving around 9:30am. We got a little cleaned up and packed, and it was off to get an early lunch of blissfully non-freeze-dried food. We decided to go back to Port Washington and found the Daily Baking Company. We had excellent sandwiches (on their bread, of course) with coffee and tea, amidst at least one group of cyclists who’d stopped for a break. Full but sore, we drove back to Chicago and civilization. It was a great tryout and we’re already planning future treks.

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