A few times in life—if we’re fortunate—we’ll feel the unmistakable tingle of being somewhere at exactly the perfect moment. No more locals saying, “You shoulda been here yesterday!” No tour guide urging us to, “Imagine what it was like here in 1880!” Instead, we get to savor the fact that in the stream of every day that ever was in a place, we happen to be there on one of the perfect ones.
Luckily enough, I caught such a moment on Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail last week. This National Scenic Trail (still open during the government shutdown!) is a 1,000-mile path that makes a loop across Wisconsin, with endpoints at Door County on the east and the St. Croix River in the west. The trail roughly follows the extent of the last glacial invasion, winding its way through endless hills, valleys and forests.
My hike took me along the Underdown and Harrison Hills segments near the town of Merrill. We entered the woods near the ruined cabin of Bill Underdown, an early settler, then hiked through a recently logged area where head-high birch trees are restoring shade to the land. Within an hour, we were deep into the deciduous forest of mature maples, ashes and birches.
The foliage—as promised by Travel Wisconsin’s foliage tracker—was explosively bright. At times, we felt suspended in a 3-D world of yellow. Fallen leaves made the ground glow, blending almost seamlessly with the canopy overhead thanks to a constant flurry of leaves making their way to the ground. It was like traveling through a snow globe swirling with autumn.
On Friday afternoon, we made our way to the top of a fire tower and spun in slow circles, snapping photo after photo of the painted forest. On Saturday, we hiked along the Wisconsin River, staring like tourists at century-old wooden pipes that still carry water from the river to a hydroelectric plant, water spraying out in tiny jets where the slats spring leaks.
Very early one morning, when dawn was still working its way toward Wisconsin, a sound stirred us in our sleeping bags. It started as a series of far-off yips in the woods, then transformed into the mournful, unmistakable howl of a wolf. Another howl joined the conversation, and we all laid still, listening to the call of the wild somewhere in the darkness. Our tent, it turned out, was exactly the right place to be that morning.