Three days into a thousand mile hike, Andrew Nowak found himself with a broken foot. Walking uphill against traffic on Lake Michigan’s shoreline, Nowak felt a click in his heel. He continued walking 36 miles with that stress fracture before making it to his pick up site. He took a week off to heal before continuing his quest to hike the entire 1,200 mile Ice Age Trail.
Nowak is a substitute teacher based out of Thorp, Wis., east of Eau Claire. He had familiarity with the trail, living just a quarter mile off of one leg of it. Sixty percent of Wisconsinites live within 20 miles of a portion of the trail.
After paying off student loan debt in 2021, Nowak found himself with more money than usual. He crunched some numbers and discovered that the cost to hike the entirety of the Ice Age Trail between equipment and food would be about $2 per mile.
“I have the money to do this and I have a substitute teacher license. So I knew that taking September off isn't a big deal. So I made the time I had the money all of a sudden and that it was just time,” Nowak said. He chose to begin his hike in the late summer to finish in the fall to still have water running and avoid bugs, which he was immensely grateful for the absence of. Typical thru hikers of this trail, however, would start early summer.
“I definitely hit the highs and lows of both the summer and the late fall because my hottest day was 91 degrees and my coldest day was 18,” Nowak said.
The Ice Age trail follows the terminal moraine, the mark of debris that glaciers leave, of the last Ice Age. It begins in Door County winding south before turning northwest ending at the St. Croix River, 1,200 miles total.
While on the trail, Nowak found himself completely alone at one point of the journey for five days. He had no cell phone service, so he couldn’t contact his wife or other family.
“So you can actually walk in Wisconsin and go five days without seeing anyone. No people, no social media, no nothing. It's free. But I'm a fairly social person,” Nowak said. “I was bored out of my mind. I was aching for human interaction. Five days and (seeing) nobody outside of a vehicle … it kind of gets you a little bit.”
Nowak had humble outdoorsy beginnings in his Boy Scout troop in Reedsburg, Wis. He can remember when he and his troop took a five day trip to the Philmont Scout base in New Mexico, where they hiked 10 miles per day. He said most in the group found no enjoyment during the trip, save for himself, who can remember thinking “I can do this again.” He went on to study outdoor education at Northland College in Ashland before various outdoorsy jobs.
“Hiking is just a lot of fun,” Nowak said. “I really enjoy having a map and going out somewhere. And you've never been to that place before, but you want to be there. And even though you've never been there, you know exactly where you are because of the maps. And you're having a good time and you really can't beat that.”
Besides the foot injury, the trail of loneliness through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and encountering wild parsnip, life on the trail was blissful for Nowak. He slept in his hammock each night. Nowak found it was easier to walk a few hundred feet off the trail to sleep in the trees and save room for cold weather supplies rather than lugging camping supplies.
Much of the route, however, is on asphalt, unlike other similar trails like the Appalachian Trail.
“I'd say most of the time I walked without headphones,” Nowak said. “But the long road stretches kind of are soul sucking because it's harder on your body. It's harder on your knees and your joints.”
Despite accomplishing one of the most daring outdoor challenges to Wisconsinites, Nowak still has plans to take himself farther. He is currently training for Grandma’s Marathon set for June in Duluth, Minnesota. Nowak is planning on running the race with his 70-year-old father, who has run in every Grandma’s Marathon since 1977. Being outdoors seems to be in Nowak blood.
After that? This summer, the substitute teacher will embark on a 300 mile hike on the Superior Trail from Duluth to Canada, which should take him a mere 20 days compared to his 73 on the Ice Age Trail.
Nowak is one of 81 people to completely through hike the trail in 2021, a large increase caused, in part, by the pandemic. For comparison, in 2000, only three people completed the trail. The trail formally joined the National Trails System in 1980 after President Jimmy Carter signed the Ice Age National Scenic Trail into law.
According to Melissa Pierick, director of marketing and community relations at the Ice Age Trail, the trail has seen an explosion of visitors since the COVID-19 pandemic as more people venture outdoors, despite many national parks closing their gates in 2020.
“We never closed the trail. National Park Services closed down, but the Ice Age trail stayed open. So people discovered it,” Pierick said. Peirick remembers Nowak walking into the trail’s main office in Cross Plains that summer as well as the many thru hikers that stopped into the office. She noted that she always finds it exciting to see them drop by.
One of Nowak’s favorite memories outside, however, wasn’t even hiking.
“I got paid to take a group of people from Ely, Minnesota canoeing up to Atikokan,” Nowak said. “So I did about 100 miles of canoeing through the Boundary Waters in Quantico, and not only was it a really awesome trip, but I got paid for it too. That's really sweet.”