Thawing Out on the Ice Age Trail

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 tighter in our snow pants. My satchel heavy with ice clamps and backcountry maps scrapes against the limestone walls. Frank and Jim, my brothers, are peeling 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 — try telling that to our wind-scorched cheeks, which itch as they thaw.

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)

Still, we’re grateful for a roof.

Stumbling upon the historical winery on Navarino Street has been a merry detour, after catching the sun rise over a Lake Michigan abloom with ice.

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 smothered 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.

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 would have intended: in the off season.

We’ve listened to wolves howl in starlit barrens, witnessed glacier-sculpted soils feeding families and big agriculture, and watched 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. 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 goblet after goblet 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.

Wisconsinite Sally Younger is a science historian and writer — and one of National Geographic’s Young Explorers. Whether by boot, blade, or back road — she’s trekked the entire Ice Age Trail, documenting how the Earth’s latest great climate change continues to shape lives a dozen millenia after the glaciers retreated.


  1. Katy Almond
    March 30, 2013, 9:27 am

    Sally, thanks for the inspirational post. I’ve seen the sun rise over Lake Michigan while staying in Algoma. Beautiful. Got to get back there, Always a warm welcome at Wisconsin wineries!

  2. Bernice Wick
    Beloit, Wisconsin
    March 14, 2013, 2:39 am

    Sally Younger has a way with words that makes me want to “hit the trail,” despite the Wisconsin winter we are having. I think, first, however, I will just make the trip to Algoma to share some wine with a few ghosts.

    Madison WI
    March 7, 2013, 11:13 am

    Feel free to contact me for Group hiking the Ice Age Trail.
    I can connect you with a few differnt groups of Section Hikers.

  4. Helen Stucky Risdon
    Waterville, KS
    March 6, 2013, 11:12 am

    I was wondering when Sally was at this end of the Ice Age Trail?

    We now have the Ice Age Monument in Blue Rapids, Kansas. Currently the Smithsonian Traveling display of “The Way We Worked” is on display in the Blue Rapids Museum…on the south side of the town’s round “square”. I hope she and other travelers will stop by again. She can also hike the 5 miles between Blue Rapids and historic Waterville or ride the Central Branch Rails.

    Wellness Weavers takes in visiting health enthusiasts or you can stay in the historic Weaver Hotel or the Vintage Charm B & B. The California-Oregon Trail and the buffalo-Native American and cattle drive trails also cross through Marshall County.

    Beware: Sarah Keyes of the famous Donner-Reed Party passed away on the banks of the Big Blue River awaiting the conditions that would allow their wagon train to cross. No reports of adverse haunting experiences have been reported by those visiting the famous Alcove Springs.