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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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All the way to Merrimac
Another link in the Ice Age Trail

In general, the footing is good in a new mile-long section of the Ice Age Trail north of Lodi. But there are stretches where you need to watch your step. Doing so directs your attention to all the effort that has gone into establishing this extension of the trail's Gibraltar segment. You can see the work underfoot. One month after its establishment, the tamped-down soil still emits the faint aroma of fresh earthworks, as if to beckon more hikers whose boots will season this path into greater permanence.

Once you're up on one of the ridgelines along this section, the terrain flanking the Wisconsin River valley begins to reveal itself, and the scenery is worth savoring. At the most spectacular viewpoint, an enormous bench overlooks a panorama spanning the town of Merrimac and its ferry crossing where the Wisconsin River widens into Lake Wisconsin.

Some 180 volunteers contributed their labors last month to establish this part of the Ice Age Trail, the footpath through Wisconsin's glacially sculpted natural areas. The Gibraltar segment now runs 2.5 miles from a parking area off Slack Road to the Merrimac Ferry's south landing at Highway 113. From 790 feet above sea level at river's edge to a high point of 1,085, it makes for the kind of five-mile out-and-back journey that renders the mind as clear as arid blue skies on a brisk fall day.

At intervals of 30 or 50 paces, yellow blazes have been painted on trees or posts to mark the way. Some trees show fresh cuts where branches that would have projected across the trail have been trimmed, distinguishing this new section from the more mature path it extends. An occasional stake labels private land, a subtle caution to remain on route. Sometimes, a fallen tree has been employed to stabilize the trail. Others have been moved aside and left to return to soil. A great rock has been rolled out of the way. Another larger, mossy-covered erratic appears to have been left where the glacier dropped it.

Most trees are bare this time of year, which improves visibility but increases exposure to the elements. A small stand of towering evergreens affords modest shelter from stiff breezes.

The trail rises and falls, with a couple of switchbacks benched into hillsides so hikers can climb and descend shallower, more forgiving grades.

This new mile is the result of a massive undertaking by an Ice Age Trail Mobile Skills Crew. Convened the weekend of Oct. 14-17, the project involved volunteers from the Ice Age Trail's Lodi chapter, UW Hoofer Outing Club, REI and other groups whose total effort amounted to more than 3,400 hours of labor.

That works out to between 18 and 19 trail inches per hour. Slow going, but grass-roots trail-building is a glacial process. The resulting mile of fresh trail is one less mile left to establish along a route of more than 1,000. These volunteers earned their free meals and sound sleep - and the unspoken gratitude of visitors to this path. Without fail, the dozen hikers I encountered over the course of three hours last Saturday wore broad smiles.

Some people prefer loops to out-and-back routes, perhaps failing to appreciate that every length of trail is different in each direction: Ascents become descents (and vice versa), sun and wind that had been in your face on the way out are now behind you, features you overlooked from the front may be more noticeable from the back.

This new mile brings hikers, snowshoers and Nordic skiers that much closer to Gibraltar Rock, for which this segment is named, and to the lengthier Lodi and Lodi Marsh segments to the south. To the north, the Merrimac, Devil's Lake and Sauk Point segments - which total almost 20 miles - are within a ferry ride and about 1.5 road miles of this lengthened Gibraltar segment.

Perhaps the greatest attribute of this new mile is the way it renders the possibility of linking established Ice Age Trail segments to the north and south that much more tantalizing. A substantial number of trail miles remain to fill in before that ambition is reached. But each mile established makes it that much easier to visualize more trail miles where those missing links linger.

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