Saturday, November 9, 2013

Taylor and Lincoln Counties Backpacking Corridor

Just a little background on myself, I have done all of the non-roadwalk miles of the North Country Trail in Minnesota with the exception of 60 miles near Duluth.  That’s over 550 miles of trail including the NCT in Itasca State Park, Chippewa National Forest, and the Kekekabic, Border Route and most of the Superior Hiking Trail.  And recently I’ve been doing some substantial chunks of the IAT which also adds up to over 500 miles.

Last April and November I did a presentation called “The Coolest Campsites on the North Country Trail in Minnesota” at the Midwest Mountaineering Outdoor Adventure Expo in Minneapolis.  The handout for the class is posted on my website at   I have visited over 140 of the 150 backcountry campsites on the NCT in Minnesota, which gives me a unique perspective on campsites.

I believe the Ice Age Trail corridor in Lincoln and Taylor Counties in particular could become a very good backpacking area. Several improvements to the IAT in that area would help foster more backpacking. Let’s take a look at the Superior Hiking Trail, it is 315 miles long, minus 45 miles around Duluth, that leaves about 270 miles of backcountry hiking.  The SHT is a very popular hiking trail, perhaps the most popular in the Midwest.  It has 93 established backcountry campsites.  So doing the math, that’s one every three miles on average.  Plus add in 6 state park campgrounds, and city campgrounds in towns like Grand Marais and Two Harbors.  So I really think you need more established backcountry campsites in the Lincoln/Taylor corridor.

So, what are the components of a Backcountry Campsite?  Most Backcountry campsites have several components. They are: trail leading to the campsite from the main trail, tent pads, campfire area, trail leading to the latrine and the trail leading to the water source.  I’ve seen some campsites with additional amenities like picnic tables, wood racks and more.

Why established Backcountry Campsites are better than dispersed camping?  Well, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, Backcountry Campsites have amenities like tent pads, latrines, and a campfire area.  Plus when you let people build their own campsite when they are dispersed camping, they could pick very bad places to camp. For instance, I have seen the remains of campfires at places that are far away from a water source.  In cases like that the campers may not completely put out their fire, leaving it to smolder.  This could cause a forest fire if the wind picks up and blows the ashes just a few feet.

Plus, Backpackers are more likely to stop and camp at an established Backcountry Campsite instead of making camp at a spot where they are not supposed to camp. For instance, in June I encountered some backpackers camping on Alta Springs Fishery Land, which is off limits to camping.  If there was an established backcountry campsite in the nearby Lincoln County Forest, I’m sure they would have stopped at the campsite instead of camping someplace they are not supposed to be camping. Since the IAT has several locations where it is built in State Fisheries and Wildlife Areas which don’t allow camping, it’s important to build campsites on lands that do allow camping.

Why Backcountry Campsites are better than Campgrounds.  Well, when you are at a campground there could be plenty of people around.  When I hiked through the New Wood County Park campground in July, I noticed there was one campsite where there were over 100 spent fireworks. That might not be the ideal situation if you are looking for some peace and solitude.  Backcountry Campsites give you more of a wilderness experience where you can truly connect with nature.

The IAT has built a few waterless campsites like on the hill near the Merrimac Ferry and the most recently one near the Monroe Grasslands in the Mecan Springs Segment.  But, at both locations it says that campfires are not allowed.  Plus, the areas those two campsites are located in more rural areas, as opposed to more wilderness type areas in the Lincoln/Taylor Counties Corridor.

Why having the campsites about 3 miles apart is a good idea.  As mentioned in the earlier paragraph, the SHT has campsites on average about 3 miles apart.  This is not always the case. They do have an instance where campsites are 8 miles apart and several instances where campsites are clustered around a water source.  But having campsites around 3 miles apart is a good idea.  For instance, if I’m backpacking during the summer and I arrive at a campsite at 5 pm, I would most likely continue hiking to the next campsite if it is only 3 miles away.  If the next campsite is 7 miles away, I would probably stay at the campsite where I was at.  Thus, having more campsites gives backpackers more options.

There is a section of the Ice Age Trail in Taylor County that does have campsites at a very good rate. That section is in the Chequamegon National Forest starting at Lake Eleven.  In that area the IAT has campsites at Lake Eleven, Jerry Lake, and South Fork of the Yellow River. Continuing east there is supposed to be a campsite east of the Hemlock esker, but I was unable to find it with my backpacking party of 5.  Also, I had Jared and Will look for it on their hike and they were unable to locate it.  So, theoretically if there actually is a campsite there, that would continue the streak of campsites. Then there is a campsite at the southern junction of the Chippewa Lobe, and another one at the northern end of the Chippewa Lobe.  Hiking east from there you would get to the 4 campgrounds at the Mondeau Flowage after about 8 miles. 

So, it think the IAT needs to build off of that good stretch of campsites.  For Instance, the logical starting point for hiking is at the Trailhead near Hwy 64 near Lublin. But the nearest campsite to that location is Lake Eleven, which coincidently is 11 miles from the Hwy 64.  I think the IAT could use at least two campsites in the area between Hwy 64 and Lake Eleven.  One of the campsites should be within a mile of Hwy 64 and would be a Friday nighter campsites for people who come up on Friday night and want an easy campsite to hike in to.   I know that there is a need for campsites along that stretch of trail because I’ve seen several places where there are the remains of campfires.

So, at this point I think the logical place where the IAT should emphasize backpacking is starting at Hwy 64 near Lublin and going all the way to Grandfather Falls north of Merrill.   There are shorter roadwalks within that section, like the Fawn Ave roadwalk and the Harper Road/Rustic Road #1 Roadwalk, but I really don’t think those roadwalks will matter much to backpackers.  Meanwhile, west of Highway 64 is a 24 mile roadwalk to Cornell and East of Grandfather Falls is a 10 mile roadwalk to the Underdown.  So, I believe that the Hwy 64 to Grandfather Falls Section is the best spot to emphasize long distance backpacking.

It also should be noted that I have not hiked west of the Chippewa Moraine.  So potentially there could be a very good long distance backpacking area up that way. As far as other places that I’ve hiked being good backpacking routes, I’d say that the Chippewa Moraine is a great place for a weekend excursion.  It has three really good campsites along that section, and the IAT should add some more between the Chippewa Moraine and Cornell.  I also believe that the Underdown and Harrison Hills would also provide a good weekend backpacking trip.  Once you get east of the Harrison Hills near Parish, Wisconsin, the IAT goes on several two-track forest roads that ATV’s and Hunting Vehicles use, so it might not be all that appealing for backpackers.

People are looking for places for an extended backpacking trip.  I frequent the Forum on Backpacking Magazine’s website, and I’ve seen several posts from people who want to find a backpacking route within 5 hours of Chicago.  The Taylor/Lincoln area would fit the bill for those backpackers.  Plus the area is less than 3 hours from Minneapolis and St Paul.

The Taylor and Lincoln Counties Corridor of the IAT could become a very popular backpacking route.  It has some great features like the Hemlock Esker, Mondeau Esker and Grandfather Falls.  All the IAT would have to do is add some more campsites, emphasize the area as a backpacking area and it could really take off.  Having local volunteers provide a reasonably priced shuttling service would also help.

So, that’s just something for the Ice Age Trail people to think about as they are having their Regional Rallies over the next few weeks.