Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ice Age Trail: Turtle Rock Segment

Charlie and I completed the Turtle Rock Segment last weekend! I'm always happy to hike a trail near a river ~ especially the Wisconsin River, but this was one of the most challenging and difficult trails I've ever done. It didn't help that it was a hot day and the deer flies were out in full-force either.

We started at the Burma Rd. entrance with the hope of completing the longest stretch of trail first and then taking a decent break when we reached the river. The problem began when we entered the trail and were instantly swarmed with biting flies that we had to practically run from. I kept my can of bug spray in hand, ready for constant reapplications. I even sprayed Charlie's new Ruffwear Web Master Harness and wiped some spray on top of her head; I felt so bad for her.

The terrain alternated from wide mowed paths edged with trees to overgrown wooded areas where the path was barely visible, although the yellow trail blazes are easy to find. However, the bugs never relented. Occasionally there would be mucky spots and I could see how difficult this trail would be during the spring or after a rainy period, but by this time in the year the creeks and marshes were mostly dried-up.


We eventually entered a forest-and-swamp mix that reminded me of the "Fire Swamp" from the Princess Bride movie. I kept waiting for the "Rodents Of Unusual Size" to jump out at me. Maybe it's just because this is such a remote part of the trail, but it was spooky. At times like these, I'm so glad to have my dog, Charlie, along. While I'm technically hiking alone, having her with me helps me feel less so.

Rocks began to protrude up through the trail in spots and I could hear the distant roar of the falls; I figured we were getting close to the river. Finally.

But apparently I was wrong. Instead we continued to trek along completely overgrown trail with waist-high weeds. And the flies were still swarming... although by this point I just gave in and accepted that they were going to be with us throughout the hike. Charlie was a good trail leader and trudged ahead, blazing her own trail. At times, I could barely see her red vest through the thick ferns.

Finally we arrived at the trail marker turning us toward the river, but as we got close enough to see the distant water, I realized the foliage was going to be too dense to get near the river's edge. Charlie kept trying to pull me toward the sound of the water, but we had to keep heading along the trail and hope to find an opening soon. I knew she was getting hot; we needed to find a safe spot for her to go swimming and take a break.

Hiking with a dog has its own special challenges. It's not like you can ask whether they're okay or if they need a break - you have to watch their body language and use good judgment. I always carry enough water for both of us because I don't want Charlie drinking out of the mosquito-filled puddles (and whatever else might be in there). We take regular breaks to have a snack, rehydrate and pour water on top of her back (under the harness) to help keep her cool. I also stop every 1/2 hour or so to check her feet for injuries and pull ticks off her.

The trail was getting MUCH more challenging along this stretch. We had to scramble over huge rocks, boulders and logs while climbing up, down and all around. Having the Ruffwear Roamer Leash belted to me - freeing up my hands - allowed me to grip rocks and tree trunks as I made my way through this crazy trail.

The trail kept going and going and going and all the while the river was taunting us with its delightful babble over the 1.8 billion-year-old rocks of Grandfather Falls... just out of reach. We paused frequently to look for yellow blazes to make sure we were still on the trail - sometimes guessing our way but never getting lost. And finally a view of the river; we had to be close to an opening!

But no. Next thing I know, we're practically swallowed up by ferns that were taller than me! Charlie didn't know where to go, so I took the lead, wading through the ferns and hoping like crazy that we were heading in the right direction.

Six-foot-tall ferns!
Yellow blaze on small tree ahead!

As we emerged from the ferns, I spotted a yellow blaze on a tree up ahead - sweet relief! And yet, the trail continued with no access to the river.

Until finally we came out onto a large sloping rock just below Grandfather Dam. We could see people fishing and picnicking on the opposite shore, enjoying a beautiful Saturday afternoon - such a tease after hiking so long and just wanting to be done already.

Unfortunately the water was moving too swiftly to let Charlie swim here. We headed back up the trail, much to Charlie's dismay, to hopefully find a swimming spot above the dam in calmer water. This time Charlie was in luck! And I totally let her play and frolic in the water for as long as she wanted. She was so happy and completely revived!

After our swimming break, we headed back into the woods to finish up the hike. I found a HUGE snake skin across the trail at one point (presumably a water snake) and we heard deer up on the ridge above us, which Charlie attempted to chase before realizing that she was securely anchored to me.

Snake skin in comparison to my boot - over 3 feet long?

I was dead tired so I allowed Charlie to assist with pulling me up the steep trail above the tiny creek flowing below us.

The hike continued through pretty woods and decent trail terrain. I carried Charlie over the bridge at the final creek crossing because the squares in the plastic grate were too big and her feet would have gone through. When we arrived at the designated parking area off County Highway E, I checked my clock and found that we'd hiked the 5 miles of trail in 2-1/2 hours. Not too bad, but longer than I had expected. Turtle Rock Segment definitely requires extra time due to the extreme terrain and allowing time for possibly wandering off-trail. We found some evidence of trail-marker damage but not enough to cause us to get lost - the yellow blazes are always easy to find if you watch for them.


  1. Hi Heather, greetings from Australia. I love your blog! I grew up in Wausau but unfortunately haven't been back in almost 15 years. Your blog is taking me on a wonderful journey through my beautiful home state, showing me many of the sights that I've always wanted to visit. You've inspired me to make it back to Wisconsin one day soon. Our goal when back is to visit Lake Superior, Bayfield and the stunning Apostle Islands. Hopefully one day you and Charlie make it up there because I'd love to read your blog for that trip. Having lived on the shores of gorgeous Lake Michigan for many years I love the Great Lakes, and people from other parts of the country aren't usually aware of Wisconsin's 820 miles of beautiful shoreline. I look forward to seeing more pics of my home town of Wausau too, its river walks, downtown etc. Thanks and happy travels with Charlie!

    1. Hi Todd! I'm so glad you found my blog and are enjoying the Wisconsin scenery through it - that is precisely my purpose! Charlie and I road-tripped up to Bayfield last October (before this blog) and will definitely be back. Thanks for reading!

  2. Hello Heather. I've hiked the Grandfather Falls segment of the trail a number of times from the dam, past the penstocks and onto the small camping area off of 107. I wanted to stretch out my experience so tried the Turtle Rock segment. I tried to hike this segment this May, 2014. I had trouble finding the trail head but eventually found it on Burma Rd? (long gravel road that had a do not enter sign) That was my first question, is that where you started this trip? After a bit I came across a large open field and then entered woods. I didn't make if very far based on the fact that I wasn't well prepared for the marsh like area and was just "checking it out". Second question, when you finished at E, 2.5 hours later, did you double back to where you started off? So 5 hours total? I want to give it another try this October. Just came across your blog today. It's a great site, nicely done :0)

    Frank Svec (Chicago) But I frequent the Tomahawk area quite a bit

  3. Hey Frank ~ Thanks for reading! Yes, the entrance at Burma Rd. is where we began our hike and you're right... it's a little hard to tell where you're going sometimes! I always watch for the yellow blazes to know I'm on the right track. The "marshy" area during that first half of the segment is not as scenic either (I didn't enjoy that part of the hike very much but liked the feeling of being in isolated wilderness). If you were to continue on, the vegetation gets VERY thick as you near the river and can be easy to lose your way. We got very lucky the first time we went and actually stayed on trail (until the very end). I had a trail helper waiting on Cty E who picked me and Charlie up so we didn't have to backtrack. Some people lock up a bicycle at one end of a segment to ride back to their cars (which is hard to do with a dog). I've gone one other time during the fall and started at Cty E and only hiked as far as the river, then backtracked to Cty E (rather than going through the less scenic marshy area). The vegetation is much easier to handle in the fall and less bugs too! I highly recommend giving it another try in September.

  4. Thanks for the reply! Looking forward to the Fall weather up north. Take care!