You can really build character on the Ice Age Goat Path
by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist
"There's no place like home...no place like home..." Those Dorothionic words kept ringing in my mind that day, even though I wasn't able to click the heels of my hiking boots together three times. I was too busy trying to keep them firmly on the trail.
It was the last weekend in October, and we were on the Ice Age Trail in a foreign county for the first time. In the short history of Boy Scout Troop 72, we were already intimately familiar with most of the 17 miles of the Ice Age Trail in our own Chippewa County, through our many previous day-hikes and backpacking weekends. So we thought we'd venture out and try a different part of the thousand-mile trail, this time in the Chequamegon National Forest near Medford.
Boy, were we in for a surprise! We learned that all segments of the Ice Age Trail are not created equal.
We had taken for granted the many improvements made on the trail in Chippewa County -- dozens of wooden foot bridges across streams and over swamps, switchbacks for climbing hills, and fallen trees promptly cut out of the way.
By contrast, some sections of the trail in Taylor County were more suited for a goat than a backpacker! There were countless trees fallen across the path, some of which looked like they had been resting peacefully for years. Most of them didn't require too much effort to scramble over or crawl under, but those body contortions add up. And some fallen trees, like the old song, were "so high, you can't get over it; so low, you can't get under it." Fortunately, they were not "so long, you can't get around it."
There were also plenty of little streams that each required a leap of faith, or tiptoeing over a log to get across -- a precarious predicament when you're wearing 30 or 40 pounds of gear on your back.
We eventually made it to Spearhead Campground on Mondeaux Flowage, with just enough time before dark to get camp set up and cook supper over a fire. The park ranger had reassured fellow troop leader James Sandomierski earlier in the week that there would be fresh water there, so we didn't bother to bring our filter.
Sure enough, we found a pump in the campgrounds -- but the handle had been removed for the season! Uff da. Good thing Scouts enjoy a challenge: we had to coax water from the depths using ropes and a strong walking stick.
Sunday morning, we dads had our tents all packed up and were ready to hit the trail, but the boys were not moving very quickly toward that end. They announced that they didn't want to backpack that day. Their new idea was to simply hike to the cars, and then drive back to get our camping gear.
Well, that didn't go over real well with the grown-ups. One of the big traits of a Boy Scout troop is that it's supposed to be boy-led, but every once in a while, an adult needs to intercede with some common sense. After all, these boys were playing tackle football that morning, so it wasn't like they didn't have the energy to pack it out.
Fortunately, I had prepared a mini-sermon due to the predictions of sub-freezing temperatures. I read to the boys from James 1:2-4: "Dear brothers, whenever trouble comes your way, let it be an opportunity for joy. For when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be strong in character and ready for anything."
That message from God's Word seemed to put things in perspective: hardships lead to endurance, which builds your character. Hey, that's what we're after in Scouting, anyway! The tents were quickly struck, and we were on the trail again fifteen minutes later.
Sunday's hike was even tougher than Saturday's. Not only was the trail much rougher than expected, but it also meandered for much longer than it appeared on the map. At one point, after finally heading east from the flowage, we purposely took a parallel logging road just to get a break from the endless obstacles of the trail.
As Murphy would predict, our logging road hit a dead end after a mile, so we got the chance to use our compasses to navigate through the woods back to the trail to finish our trip.
The total distance of 5-7 miles that we were planning turned out to be more like 15-16 miles! But all eight of the boys (and all three dads, including novice backpacker Pat Wahl) made it out alive. I was especially proud of the three boys who were first-timers: Matt, Jake, and Andrew. It was a trial by fire for those eleven-year-olds! They'll have some great stories to tell around future campfires.
If you want to hike some challenging terrain, try the Ice Age Goat Path near the Mondeaux flowage -- you'll be "strong in character" by the time you're done. As for us, our next backpacking trip will be back in home sweet home, Chippewa County.
You can reach Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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