Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Running the Kettle Moraine

There are few places in the Upper Midwest where you can trail run for miles without seeing a road (at least one with cars); where the sounds of nature overcome those of mankind and the trails are well maintained.  The North Shore in Minnesota and Pictured Rocks in the UP come to mind.  It seems that to truly get away we need to travel to the bumpy lands where the food chain is in question.  Though I have not logged mountain running time, I expect this is true.  In the Midwest, we take what we can get.
Well I know a place where the getting is good.  I’d like to share with you a gem of a running location: the Kettle Moraine State Forest.  This singletrack wonderland in SE Wisconsin is broken into two regions: the Southern and Northern units.  You can’t go wrong with either section.

The best trail through both locations is the Ice Age Trail.  This is a 1000 mile route that traces the maximum extent of the most recent ice sheet to cover Wisconsin about 20,000 years ago.  Reminders of this event were left behind in the form of glacial features that left the land rugged, rocky and dramatic.  Here is a quick primer on those glacial features:

Kettles – The leading edge of the glacier acted as a bulldozer, creating a frontal till.  Blocks of ice were left buried in the till in the glacier’s retreat, which melted, leaving behind circular depressions in the land; some 200 feet deep.  Lakes typically form in these depressions.

Moraines – The glacier moved material in two main methods: material lifted and carried along, and material bulldozed in the frontal till.  This material left behind upon the glacier’s retreat created hills almost 350 feet in height.
Drumlins – As the glacier retreated, the land eroded into the vacated area, forming conical or parabolic hills.  These hills actually point in the direction of the retreating glacier.

Kames – Streams formed on top of the glacier, which sometime broke through to the land surface below.  Sand and gravel carried by the stream were deposited below, forming conical hills.
Eskers – Cracks formed in the glacier, allowing sand and gravel to drop to the land surface below.  Narrow ridges were formed at these locations.

The results are dramatic and beautiful.
The Northern Unit is located about 45 minutes north of Milwaukee and encompasses about 30 miles of the Ice Age trail, with 132 total trail miles.  The trails through this section are mostly wooded with very well-maintained singletrack.  My favorite trailhead is located on Cty Hwy H, just south of Kewaskum.  Heading north from this location we are treated with rolling hills and nice views.  The sounds of mankind recede along this section.

The Southern Unit is located about 35 miles southwest of Milwaukee and encompasses another 30 miles of the Ice Age Trail with 160 total trail miles.  There is significant prairie in this section, which the DNR is working to restore to its past extent.  This area will eventually be the largest prairie east of the Mississippi.   The scenery is beautiful and just a little flatter the Northern section.  My favorite trailhead is located along Hwy 67 and Road X.  Head north for the woods and hills, or south to the prairies.
Here are a few races held in the Kettle Moraine that take full advantage of the trails and scenery:
I recently returned from a vacation with my family, staying at my sister’s place in the Southern Unit.  Morning after morning and mile after mile of the Ice Age Trail.  Sublime.  Good for the soul.  I also had the opportunity to introduce trail running to my 11 year-old son.  What kid doesn’t like to run in the woods?  (See previous post)  We had a blast together.

Which brings me to my next big step: my first 100 miler.  I’ve run the North Face 50 mile in the Southern Unit many times before.  The Kettle Moraine 100 looms next June!