After three days of hiking a thousand miles, Andrew Nowak ended up with a broken foot. Climbing against traffic on the shores of Lake Michigan, Nowak felt a click in his heel. He continued to walk 36 miles with this stress fracture before getting to his care site. He took a week off to heal before continuing his quest to complete the entire 1,200 mile Ice Age Trail.
Nowak is a substitute teacher based in Thorp, Wis., east of Eau Claire. He knew the trail well, living only a quarter mile from one step of it. Sixty percent of Wisconsin residents live within 20 miles of a portion of the trail.
After paying off his student debt in 2021, Nowak found himself with more money than usual. He crunched some numbers and found that the cost to hike the entire Ice Age Trail between gear and food would be about $2 per mile.
“I have the money to do it and I have a substitute teacher’s license. So I knew taking September was not a big deal. So I did the time that I had the money all of a sudden and it was just the time,” Nowak said. He chose to start his hike in late summer and finish it in the fall so he would still have running water and avoid the bugs, which he was extremely grateful for not having. However, typical hikers on this trail would start in early summer.
“I definitely hit the highs and lows of summer and late fall because my hottest day was 91 degrees and my coldest day was 18,” Nowak said.
The Ice Age Trail follows the terminal moraine, a mark of debris left by glaciers, from the last Ice Age. It begins in Door County, meanders south before turning northwest, and ends at the St. Croix River, a total of 1,200 miles.
On the trail, Nowak found himself completely alone at some point during the five-day trip. He had no cell phone service, so he could not contact his wife or other family members.
“So you can walk around Wisconsin and go five days and not see anyone. No people, no social media, nothing. It’s free. But I’m quite a social person,” Nowak said. “I was bored to death. I was craving human interaction. Five days and (seeing) no one outside of a vehicle… takes you a bit.
Nowak had humble outdoor beginnings in his Boy Scout troop in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. He remembers when he and his troop took a five-day trip to the Philmont Scout base in New Mexico, where they walked 10 miles a day. He said most of the group found no enjoyment on the trip except for himself, who remembers thinking, “I can do it again.” He then studied outdoor education at Northland College in Ashland before various outdoor jobs.
“The hike is just a lot of fun,” Nowak said. “I really like having a map and going out somewhere. And you’ve never been to that place before, but you want to be there. And even if you’ve never been there, you know exactly where you are thanks to the cards. And you’re having a great time and you really can’t beat that.
Besides the foot injury, the lonely trail through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and the encounter with the wild parsnip, life on the trail was wonderful for Nowak. He slept in his hammock every night. Nowak found it easier to hike a few hundred yards from the trail to sleep in the trees and save room for cold weather supplies than to lug camping supplies.
Much of the route, however, is on asphalt, unlike other similar trails like the Appalachian Trail.
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“I would say most of the time I was walking without a helmet,” Nowak said. “But long stretches of road are kind of sucking because it’s harder on your body. It’s harder on your knees and joints.
Despite accomplishing one of the most daring outdoor challenges for the people of Wisconsin, Nowak still intends to go the extra mile. He is currently training for the Grandma Marathon scheduled for June in Duluth, Minnesota. Nowak plans to run the race with her 70-year-old father, who has run every Grandma marathon since 1977. Being outdoors seems to be in Nowak’s blood.
After that? This summer, the substitute teacher will embark on a 300-mile hike on the Upper Trail from Duluth to Canada, which should take him just 20 days compared to his 73 on the Ice Age Trail.
Nowak is one of 81 people to fully hike the trail in 2021, a steep increase caused, in part, by the pandemic. For comparison, in 2000 only three people completed the course. The trail officially joined the National Trails System in 1980 after President Jimmy Carter signed the Ice Age National Scenic Trail into law.
According to Melissa Pierick, director of marketing and community relations at the Ice Age Trail, the trail has seen an explosion in visitors since the COVID-19 pandemic as more people venture outside, despite the closure. many national parks in 2020.
“We never closed the trail. The National Park Services closed, but the Ice Age Trail remained open. So people found out,” Pierick said. Peirick remembers Nowak walking into the main trail office in Cross Plains that summer, along with the many hikers who stopped by the office. She noted that she always finds it exciting to watch them pass.
One of Nowak’s favorite memories outdoors, however, wasn’t even hiking.
“I got paid to take a group of people from Ely, Minnesota canoeing to Atikokan,” Nowak said. “So I did about 100 miles of canoeing through the boundary waters at Quantico, and not only was that a really awesome trip, but I got paid for it too. It’s really adorable.
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