SI Vault
John Hildebrand
December 15, 1980
A nameless range of hills runs across the U.S. from central Montana as far east as Long Island. Like a Great Wall whose origins lie in the distant past, this rim of earth outlines the farthest advance of the last great ice sheet of the Ice Age. Retreating north 10,000 years ago, the glaciers left behind a moraine, a belt of hills and hollows with Middle-Earth names like kettles and kames and eskers. Even in New York City one can see the imprint of glaciers on the ice-eroded rock outcroppings of Central Park. But the best place to track down the ice sheet is in Wisconsin, where the 1,000-mile Ice Age Trail follows the moraine across the state. And the best time to do so is in the dead of winter.
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December 15, 1980

In Which A Solitary Skier Traverses The Icy Remains Of A Glacial Epoch

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It was nearly dark when we parked at the trailhead, strapped on our skis and struck off down a sunken logging road. Gil led the way. A man in his late 50s with the frame and demeanor of a football coach, he scrambled up inclines on skinny skis, then descended blindly, his voice booming instructions in the darkness: "Watch it here! Look out!"

I was skiing, more or less by feel, my strides tentative and exploratory. Gradually I began to suspect that Tanner, who was in fact the cartographer who had mapped the trail, didn't actually need to see his way.

A yellow light shone ahead in the woods, and I decided it was a lantern Tanner had set as a beacon in the window of his cabin. But as I skied on, the light grew enormous and rose at an angle through the treetops until it became a full moon. Shortly the trail was awash in moonlight, and Tanner was waiting ahead where the logging road gave way to snow-covered swamp.

"It's only been 11,000 years since the last glacier retreated here," he said. "The landforms are still fresh enough that you can imagine the ice sheet just north of here. In winter you don't have to imagine very hard."

We herringboned up a hogback ridge, skiing along its spine to a tall stand of white pine where Tanner had built his A-frame. By now the moonlight was bright enough to read by, but the inside of the cabin was dark and cold. We banged around blindly until Tanner lit a Coleman lantern and hung it from a loft beam, Then we brought in lengths of birch and popple (as we call poplar out here), which Tanner shoved into the woodstove until he had to kick the door to shut it. He doused the wood with white gas and fired it up.

Off came the parkas, sweaters and hats. Tanner put a coffeepot on the stove, then sat back, legs splayed out, basking in the radiant heat.

"My father bought this land for a woodlot back in 1932, at the bottom of the Depression," he said. "Paid a dollar an acre for it. We were burning wood for heat then, and my dad and I would drive up nearly every weekend in a Model A Ford pickup with a square-box bed and cut wood. There was an old guy living up here and he had a pair of horses that would help us snake the logs out of the woods to the road. I hated it."

We looked out the large triangular window and saw that the moon had climbed nearly to the roof peak, and I asked Tanner why he'd come back after so many years and built the cabin here.

"Because I find the land a lot more interesting knowing how and why it was formed," he said. "The ridge this cabin is built on is probably a crevasse-fill. As the glacier waned, meltwater poured into the crevasse, filling it with sediment, so that when the ice disappeared nothing remained but the ridge."

He seemed pleased with the glacier he had conjured up, placing us in its fissured depths. Despite the slight vertigo these sudden transitions caused, I envied Tanner's vision. He seemed to straddle the past and the present effortlessly, speaking of glacial epochs in the same breath that he spoke of his childhood, as if both had shaped his destiny equally.

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