Thawing Out on the Ice Age Trail

9 Mar

The Ice Age Scenic Trail near the Chequamegon National Forest post winter thaw. (Photograph by Myheimu, Flickr)

By Sally Younger

My eyeballs feel like shoe leather.

We’re in the rathskeller – the subterranean cavern below the Von Stiehl Winery in Algoma, Wisconsin. The tight corridors feel even tighter in our snow pants. My satchel full of ice clamps and backcountry maps scrapes against the limestone walls as Frank and Jim, my brothers, peel off their ski goggles to ogle the reserves.

Some casks are seeping amethyst between their planks. The 400-year-old recipes they conceal demand mild temperatures and mood lighting — but try telling that to our wind-scorched cheeks, which itch as they thaw.

Still, we’re grateful for the warmth. Stumbling upon the historical winery on Navarino Street after hours spent watching the sun rise over a Lake Michigan abloom with ice had been a happy mistake.

We’ve been trekking, skiing, and road tripping our way along the Ice Age Trail – the 1,000 mile footpath that traces the edge of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which covered the northern half of North America until it began to subside about 20,000 years ago. Its vastness defies imagination. Think ice a mile thick. Think roaring tundra and gnashing, gushing, earth-bending weight.

The tunnels in the Von Stiehl rathskeller.  (Photograph by Paul Gasser, Emotion Photography)

The tunnels in the Von Stiehl rathskeller. (Photograph by Paul Gasser, Emotion Photography)

In terms of late Ice-Age havoc, much of Wisconsin is a rock star’s motel room. We’ve come to take stock of the ruins — and meet the latest generation of locals who are carving out lives in the landscapes left behind.

As one passing snowshoer put it, the Trail is “the best trek you’ve never heard of.” And we’ve tried to experience it as the glaciers that carved it would have intended: in the off season.

We’ve listened to wolves howl in starlit barrens, witnessed glacier-sculpted soils that fuel families and big agriculture, and seen gravel mines profit from the Pleistocene epoch even as they consume evidence of its existence.

But back in our wine cavern, our elderly hostess, Edye, hasn’t given our hiking boots a second glance — a testament to Midwestern manners.

In the time before the snow plow, she tells us, the fastest way to transport goods from the docks was beneath Algoma’s streets. Hence, the town’s now-sealed labyrinth of underground tunnels.

Algoma was home to the largest commercial fishing fleet on Lake Michigan in the 19th century, a fact twelve gorgeous murals around town proudly attest to. Today, a winter hush falls over the cream-brick taverns and the domed Hotel Stebbins, though a few souls brave the cold to slap hockey pucks around a rink near the marina.

Upstairs in the winery, Edye pours us glass after glass of ruby colored liquid. We’re plowing through the tasting list, much of which is crafted from local orchards. Von Stiehl’s has supplied this town since the Civil War era and to this day takes medals for its fruit wines.

Titletown champagne, raspberry framboise, blueberry and cranberry brews. The celebrated Montmorency cherry is transformed into two kinds of kirsche: steel-aged and oak-aged. Both are sweet and flirty. But halfway down the list I’m seduced by Dr. von Stiehl’s Cherry Bounce, a potent fruit wine derived from a centuries-old German family recipe.

Edye brings me into the conversation with a wink. She’s been engrossing my brothers with tales of unexplained noises and a haunted love triangle.

“This place has a ghost?” Frank asks.

“Three,” she corrects.

I raise a glass to the past, and feel warm for the first time all day.

Thawing Out on the Ice Age Trail Ice Age Trail , Sally Younger , Von Stiehl Winery , wisconsin

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