MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Hikes with benefits

For exercise as well as edification, tag along with an expert.

Hikers gather around a naturalist at Itasca.

© Beth Gauper

Hikers gather around a naturalist on Itasca State Park's Schoolcraft Trail.

Out in the forest, solitude can be overrated.

Occasionally, we all need silence. But you may have more fun if you play follow the leader.

When I go on a hike, especially if I don't know the area well, I like to tag along with naturalists. Thanks to them, I've learned all kinds of interesting things.

In the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park on the Upper Peninsula, naturalist Bob Sprague knows just about everything there is to know about the park he wrote the book on it, "Porcupine Mountains Companion." So, when I was there one September, I went along on his Black Bear Habitat hike.

Since we weren't likely to see bears, he showed us many signs of them a rotten log ripped apart by a bear looking for grubs; claw marks on a red oak, where a bear was reaching for acorns; a clump of hair on the branch of a small red pine, where a bear had bitten off the top and others had rubbed, leaving their scents.

He also told amusing anecdotes about the Bill Clintonesque appetites of bears (fried chicken, bacon, pastries) and their tendency to run off with the Girl Scouts' pancake mix. Since that visit, Sprague has found a bear den; now, he's offering off-trail Stick Your Head in a Bear Den hikes.

On the North Shore for the smelt run in mid-May, I went on a Superior Hiking Trail Association hike from the Knife River. Duluth naturalist Dave Benson went along, pointing out a beaver dam, a cluster of wild leeks, a broadwing hawk. He also showed us the round galls formed by insects on woody stems; now, whenever I see one, I think of him.

Along the Mississippi in Wisconsin's Wyalusing State Park, I hiked atop 500-foot bluffs, past effigy mounds along Sentinel Ridge and into Treasure Cave, an aerie of ocher limestone with two passages.

It was tempting to spend hours just looking at the views, but I was glad I joined a hike by naturalist Jaye Maxfield, who explained why staghorn sumac is called the Indian lemonade tree and prickly ash is the toothache tree.

Now, I follow a simple rule: If someone is willing to tell me something interesting, I'll show up and hear it. (For guided fall-color hikes, see Along for the walk.)

Join the club

Sometimes, it's just fun to tag along with other people.

One fall, I went with nine other people on a Sierra Club hike in Afton State Park, not so much to learn about the park but to learn about other people who like parks. The leaders, Dawn Wilson and Teresa Nick of St. Louis Park, had recently moved from southern California.

"If you move and you're a member of an international club, you just join the local chapter," Nick said.

A Burnsville woman also was a recent arrival, as was Dan Maas of St. Paul, a recent graduate of UW-Madison. Will Gayther of Eden Prairie also had just started his career, so the two commiserated about life in cubicles.

Wilson had brought a tree-identification book, and along the way she pointed out signs of glaciation, identified an oak savanna and showed us a prairie being restored.

"When I'm the leader, I like to not just get to a destination, but enjoy what we see along the way," she said.

Other clubs were out hiking Afton State Park's trails as well Women and Men who Cross-Country Ski, or WAMXC, clicking along with ski poles; and Outwoods, a Twin Cities gay and lesbian outdoors club whose members were having a medallion hunt in the park.

At the end of the five-mile walk, Wilson reminded us to stretch and stay hydrated throughout the day. Then we all left, reconvening in Afton for ice cream.

In the coulee country of Wisconsin, it was a Sierra Club hike that helped launch Bob Lee's busy career as a volunteer naturalist on the La Crosse River State Trail.

A member of the Wildcat Mountain State Park staff was on the hike, and she recruited him to lead regular walks along the trail near Sparta, pointing out wildflowers and other plants found on a sand prairie.

"I think we've awakened a few people to some special places, and that's what's important to me," Lee said. "People don't have to walk very far to see something they didn't even know was there."

He'd always been intrigued by the local flora and fauna, Lee said. But it was a 1960s visit by Alvin Peterson, "the bird man of Onalaska," that got him started as a naturalist.

Peterson's hearing and eyesight were failing, so he'd switched to studying wildflowers, and he recruited Lee to go out with him. Lee was stunned by the breadth of Peterson's knowledge.

"I thought, 'I've got to learn this stuff,' " he said. "So, I went to Sears and bought a single-lens reflex camera, then I went to La Crosse and bought a copy of 'Gray's Manual of Botany,' and that's how I learned my plants."

Volunteer effort

In the state parks, volunteers like Lee are helping to bolster naturalist programs that have been ravaged by budget cuts.

Nonprofit groups also recruit naturalists and geologists to go along on hikes open to the public. On Nature Conservancy hikes, naturalists and field reps lead hikes to areas the group owns or has helped protect, such as Magney-Snively Forest in Duluth.

The forest is city parkland, but developers tried to take it for a golf course until it came under the protection of the Duluth Natural Areas Program, which the Nature Conservancy helped develop.

On the first Saturday in June, the northeast Minnesota office and other branches celebrate National Trails Day by hosting a hike.

"It gets you some exercise and also the opportunity to stop, observe and learn," says Jana Pastika of the office in Duluth.

The Superior Hiking Trail Association also hold hikes. Unlike many state parks and other organizations, it doesn't limit numbers or ask for reservations for their hikes.

"Sometimes, they get quite large," says Paula Pettit of the association office in Two Harbors. "But that's good. The more people who get exposed to this natural beauty, the richer their world is."

Trip Tips: Guided hikes

All over the region, parks and nonprofit groups offer guided hikes that are free and open to the public. Here are some of the best places to look for them.

For more, see Join the club.

In addition, check the schedules of wildlife refuges, nature centers and environmental learning centers.

Superior Hiking Trail Association: Check the calendar at www.shta.org or visit the group's headquarters in Two Harbors.

Sierra Club, John Muir chapter: It's based in Madison, Wis., 608-256-0565, wisconsin.sierraclub.org.

Sierra Club, North Star chapter: It's based in Minneapolis, 612-659-9124, www.northstar.sierraclub.org.

Ice Age National Scenic Trail: The foundation, based in Cross Plains, Wis., coordinates the many local chapters, 800-227-0046, www.iceagetrail.org.

Nature Conservancy: Check the schedules for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Illinois.

Wisconsin state parks:  Check www.wiparks.net or  dnr.wi.gov.

Minnesota state parks: Check www.mnstateparks.info.

Michigan state parks: Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park near Silver City offers many hikes,  906-885-5275 or check at www.michigan.gov/dnr.

Hiking clubs

Hiking clubs hold walks throughout the year, often as part of overnight trips. Generally, participants on day hikes needn't be members.

Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club: It's based in the Twin Cities and holds weekend and Wednesday-evening hikes as well as backpacking trips.

North Stars Ski Touring Club: It's based in the Twin Cities and often holds day hikes as well as weekend hiking trips around the region; check www.north-stars.org.

Wisconsin Go Hiking Club: It's based in Milwaukee and plans four hikes a week in southeast Wisconsin and beyond; check wisconsingohiking.homestead.com.

Forest Trails Hiking Club: This club, founded in 1942, is based in the Chicago area and holds weekend day hikes in northeast Illinois and beyond, typically of 10 to 12 miles; check www.foresttrailshc.com.

St. Paul Hiking Club: It was founded in 1921 and holds many hikes around the Twin Cities; 651-793-4412, www.stpaulhike.org.

Minneapolis Hiking Club: It was founded in 1920 and hosts frequent hikes in the Twin Cities; 612-230-6475, www.minneapolisparks.org (look under Adult Sports).

NorthStar Trail Travelers: Part of the American Volkssport Association, it holds hikes in Minnesota state parks, www.nstt.org.

Last updated on May 17, 2010