One of the common questions people ask about the Ice Age Trail is, "Why does it have a big loop in the middle?" Sometimes called the doughnut or inaccurately called the bifurcation, the big loop occupies a special chapter in the Ice Age Trail story.
Most of the general route of the Ice Age Trail is due to the plan of Ray Zillmer. He envisioned a long distance hiking trail following the interlobate ridges of the Kettle Moraine in eastern Wisconsin and the terminal moraine west to the border with Minnesota. Without Ray Zillmer, there would be no Ice Age Trail. But once Zillmer died in 1960, the Ice Age Trail almost died with him. More than 10 years passed before Congressman Henry Reuss stepped up to become the Trail’s greatest champion.
For the next three decades, Congressman Reuss was a major influence on most things Ice Age Trail. The full body of his Ice Age Trail accomplishments is far beyond the scope of this article. While the big loop is something he did not intend to create and something he at times worked against in favor of his preferred eastern leg, more than any single person we can thank Congressman Reuss for the existence of the big loop.
|the Big Loop near the middle of the Ice Age Trail|
During the years following Ray Zillmer’s untimely death, Ice Age Trail leaders increasingly realized that one of the weaknesses of Zillmer’s planned route was that it was not really possible to tell the story of continental glaciation if the Trail’s route adhered rigidly to the interlobate and terminal moraines, not to mention the fact that it would lack variety for anyone walking more than a short segment. Having the Ice Age Trail weave other types of landforms not found on a terminal moraine into the route would make for a better trail. Worth noting is the fact that neither leg of the big loop follows the terminal moraine.
One of Congressman Reuss’s many Ice Age Trail accomplishments was the book, On the Trail of the Ice Age, which he authored through three editions. Initially published in January, 1976 it was the first guidebook on the Ice Age Trail and it included the first set of maps and detailed description of the entire thousand mile route. In the doughnut area, the 1976 edition shows the Trail entirely as a single route of connecting roads between Sauk City and Coloma, passing through the city of Portage. The route skirts the edge of John Muir Park but remarkably misses the Baraboo Hills and Devils Lake Park entirely. The book gives no hint of the western route shown two years earlier on the official Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation brochure of 1974.
|Ice Age Trail map from 1974|
A major milestone in the history of the Ice Age Trail was the 1980 passage of the Ice Age Trail Act by Congress and signed by the President the same year. Although many people advocated for its designation as a National Scenic Trail, no one was more important to this effort than Congressman Reuss. The law even states that the Trail will be, “generally following the route described in ‘On the Trail of the Ice Age...’ by Henry S. Reuss, Member of Congress, dated 1980.” The route shown in the 1980 edition is the eastern leg — none of the western leg.
As required by the National Trails System Act, the National Park Service completed the Ice Age National Scenic Trail Comprehensive Plan for Management and Use in 1983. The route shown on maps in the plan roughly follows the eastern leg of the big loop but a note on one map states, “The Ice Age Trail Council is working on a rerouting of the trail from Devils Lake to Greenwood Wildlife Area. The rerouting would take the trail west into the Glacial Lake Wisconsin area...” (i.e., the western leg of what later became the big loop).
Also required by the National Trails System Act was appointment of an Advisory Council to assist the National Park Service “with respect to matters relating to the trail, including the selection of rights-of-way.” Appointed by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the Advisory Council was comprised of a dozen members including former Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles, prominent citizens and active Ice Age Trail supporters. Given the conflicting ideas, the Advisory Council was not surprisingly asked to weigh in on the route through the doughnut area. In mid-1984 the Advisory Council approved the western route “to take the trail into the glacial Lake Wisconsin area” as the official route for the Ice Age Trail. But leaders from the city of Portage felt left out of the decision and Congressman Reuss remained unwilling to let go of his preferred route.
|1976 map from On the Trail of the Ice Age|
In a January 9, 1986 letter from Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation (later renamed the Ice Age Trail Alliance) President John Zillmer (Ray’s son) to Congressman Henry Reuss, John Zillmer addressed the Congressman’s efforts. At the time, Congressman Reuss also sat on the board of directors of the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation. Referring to the route through the city of Portage, John Zillmer wrote, “this route has repeatedly been rejected by the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation in spite of great pressure by you to approve it. As a matter of fact, you have been the only director to support this route. Your planned route was unanimously rejected by the Ice Age National Scenic Trail Advisory Council. It has been rejected by the Ice Age Trail Council. It has been rejected by the National Park Service. It has been rejected by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources... You have contributed so very much to what progress has been made. Why in the world are you now undermining all that you have worked so hard to accomplish?”
There was a lot of back and forth during those years about whether to make either the eastern or western legs the official route of the Ice Age Trail and designate the other one a National Side/Connecting Trail.
|an Ice Age Trail map from 1986*|
At one point Congressman Reuss resigned in protest from the board of directors of the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation only to rejoin a few months later. The issue remained a source of unrest. Some maps of this era showed the eastern route through Portage while others showed the western route into the Driftless Area and Glacial Lake Wisconsin, depending on who created the map.
At last, an official effort to put the questions to bed reached fruition in early 1987. Letters were exchanged between Congressman Bruce Vento, Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, and William Penn Mott Jr., National Park Service Director, that outlined what Congressman Vento called “a reasonable solution” of making the two legs of the big loop both part of the official route of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Thus the big loop was born out of compromise.
Still, in the 1990 edition of On the Trail of the Ice Age, Congressman Reuss showed none of the western leg of the big loop on any maps but he did include a one-paragraph description of its general route.
In 1999 the Partnership for the National Trail System held its annual conference at Lake Tahoe. Afterward a few of us accepted an invitation from Congressman Reuss to meet at his retirement home in Belvedere, CA. He and his wife were generous and delightful hosts. The elderly statesman had a few Ice Age Trail business items he wanted to impress upon us. One of these was the big loop. As he had done with me once before during a telephone call, at his dining room table he asked that we remove the western leg of the big loop from all maps. Having not lost his powers of persuasion, he made a strong case. But one of my companions that day was a long-time Ice Age Trail board member who provided an equally compelling counter argument. The retired Congressman elegantly shifted the discussion to his next topic.
Questions about the big loop still arise from time to time. Aspiring Thousand Milers sometimes ask if one must hike both legs of the big loop to be considered a Thousand Miler. The answer is “no.” In this case, half a doughnut is sufficient.
To some, the big loop remains a quirk in the Ice Age Trail. Others embrace it as part of what makes the Trail unique and wonderful.
* 1986 map appeared in Wisconsin's Foundations: A Review of the State's Geology and Its Influence on Geography and Human Activity, by Gwen Schultz, University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.
A version of this article first appeared in the Summer, 2016 edition of Mammoth Tales, a quarterly publication of the Ice Age Trail Alliance.