Mike Summers heads down the Eagle segment of the Ice Age Trail near Dousman.(Photo: Chelsey Lewis / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
The temperature was dropping quickly last Tuesday afternoon at the start of the Eagle segment of the Ice Age Trail near Dousman. By nightfall in a few hours, it would be in the single digits. And Mike Summers couldn't have been happier.
"It's supposed to get cold tonight, so I'm pumped," he said. "I want it to be tons of snow and really cold."
It's a good thing he likes the cold: He will be spending the next two months walking and sleeping in it.
Summers, 26, is about 250 miles into his thru-hike of the 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail. If he completes the trek, he'll be the first person recognized by the Ice Age Trail Alliance to thru-hike the trail in the winter. Only 41 others have thru-hiked the trail at all, and Summers has only heard of someone who did a supported winter hike (when the hiker doesn't carry all of their gear).
And for Summers, who graduated from high school in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and now lives in Portland, Ore., this is just a warm-up for what he hopes to do in 2018: a 2.5-year hike across the country, connecting and hiking all 11 National Scenic Trails in honor of the 50th anniversary of the trail system.
"When it comes down to it, this is just what I want to do," said Summers, who has a degree in Wilderness Leadership and works at Jimmy John's between his outdoor adventures. "Life's too short, the world's crazy, I could die tomorrow, so I don't see any reason why you shouldn't do what you want to do. … I'm trying to do whatever I want just to show everyone, hey, you can do whatever you want, even if it's some crazy thing that seems impossible."
Mike Summers stands in Potawatomi State Park at the start of his winter thru-hike of the 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail. (Photo: Mike Summers)
While Summers has about 2,000 miles of backpacking experience under his feet, his winter long-distance hiking skills needed improving for that big trek. That's what led him to the Ice Age Trail, which will serve as training for the longer journey.
"It's also just embracing what at first just seems terrible," he said. "But it's just another season. Why not embrace it?"
Summers kicked off his hike on Dec. 22 at the Ice Age Trail's eastern terminus in Potawatomi State Park in Door County. For the next two months, he'll follow the trail as it dips south through the Kettle Moraine, then back north through Madison, Baraboo and Antigo before turning west and finishing at Interstate State Park in St. Croix Falls. He'll carry all of his food — including his end-of-day staple, gummy worms — and sleep in a single-person tent at campgrounds and open forest land along the way, or occasionally at hotels or homes of "trail angels," the name given to people who help hikers along their treks.
So far, the trail is living up to its name. Warm, well-traveled trail segments and little fresh snow has made for an icy hike, with Summers strapping small, metal cleats to his boots instead of the snowshoes he expected to wear.
Mike Summers straps metal cleats to his shoes before continuing his trek on the Ice Age Trail at the start of the Eagle segment near Dousman. (Photo: Chelsey Lewis / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
The warm weather has also meant most of his heavy-duty winter clothing — including his down jacket and a warm hat — has stayed in his pack on his back. When the weather turns colder, he can "layer up" and carry a lighter pack.
One advantage to little snow, however, is that he can hike faster, covering about 20 miles every day instead of the 15 he thought he would. If he kept up this pace, he could finish the trek by Valentine's Day. He hopes to finish by the end of winter at the latest.
But as he heads north and the snow inevitably comes, he'll most likely slow down as he breaks trail on less-traveled trail segments.
And that's when his year of research and planning — including four spreadsheets documenting resupply towns, weather, gear and trail contacts — will be put to the test. He said his gear should keep him comfortable to –40 degrees, and since he plotted out distances between towns he knows where and when he can resupply his food and maybe find a warm bed or shower.
That's been pretty easy so far, with plenty of towns in southeastern Wisconsin providing spots to resupply, along with an outpouring of trail angels.
"It's been pretty amazing, and you wouldn't believe some of the trail magic I've had," he said, noting people who have offered up a place to sleep as well as food. There was even a bar in Mishicot that on Christmas was giving away its food and beer for free since it was shutting down soon. "And that's the stuff you can't even plan. It's unbelievable."
After the Ice Age Trail Alliance shared his blog on their Facebook page, messages came pouring in from around the state, telling him to get in touch as he passes through if he needs anything.
And despite the treacherous tread and warm weather, he's been impressed with the trail overall so far.
"It's just really good trail, when there is trail. It's really well blazed and maintained, and tons of people hike it," he said. "Seeing how the Ice Age Trail manages all of its volunteers, all of these programs, the cold cache stuff, it's like, woah! They're killing it. I'd say they're doing so many things that a lot of the other national scenic trails can learn from."
And despite there not being any flashy mountains or other dramatic landscapes like those out west, Summers has found beauty in the simplest of natural sights.
"The best part of all is the sunsets and sunrises. It's unreal. That's one of my favorite things about the Midwest in general. So to see that every night, it makes it so worth it," he said.
More information: Follow Summers' journey on his blog, improbablebutpossible.com, Instagram at @homelessmike and Facebook at facebook.com/improbablebutpossible.
Chelsey Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @chelseylew.