A Thru-Hike of America's Oldest Trail

By Bill (Samson) Wasser

On January 2, 2017, after spending a wonderful weekend exploring Natchez, Mississippi with my wife Teresa, I arrived at the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway. My goal: “thru-hike” the 444-mile Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. The Parkway was established to commemorate the “Old Natchez Trace.” Subsequently the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail was established, running parallel to the Parkway with several designated trail sections.

 Bill Wasser at the Southern Terminus of Natchez Trace Parkway

Bill Wasser at the Southern Terminus of Natchez Trace Parkway

A “thru-hike” is defined as “a completed long-distance trail end-to-end within one hiking season.” For instance, in 2013 I “thru-hiked” the 2189-mile Appalachian Trail and in 2015 the 2650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. In 2016 I attempted to thru-hike the 3100-mile Continental Divide Trail. Unfortunately, upon entering the snow-covered San Juan Mountain Range of Colorado, I slipped and broke my ankle 880 miles north of the Southern Terminus of the CDT.

It’s not exactly like I would be the first to traverse this 10,000 year old route. Centuries ago Native Americans improved the trail originally forged by migratory bison seeking salt licks. In 1810, thousands of Kaintucks made the 500-mile-long journey north, after floating down the Mississippi and hopefully departing Natchez with all their financial gains. These hardy men walked the length of the Trace to Nashville, Tennessee before dispersing towards home. Some navigated on horseback, but most were barefoot with muskets hoisted over shoulders for hunting as well as protection from highwaymen. Luckily, I didn’t have to concern myself with these Kaintuck worries!

 Old Natchez Trace. The "sunken road" was created by bison millenniums ago

Old Natchez Trace. The "sunken road" was created by bison millenniums ago

My plan was to travel designated trails where possible. However, at times I was forced to walk roadside. Despite starting in the dead of winter I raced against unseasonably warm weather resulting in severe weather for much of the trip. I hiked wet, a lot. One kindhearted park ranger stopped to make sure I was ok and to warn of an approaching storm. This gave me a chance to hop under a dilapidated cabin stuck back in the woods, where I was awarded with several adolescence gobbler turkeys strutting by, while at the same time the boss gobbler sounding off in the woods with each lightning strike.

The journey started surreal amid foggy surroundings which seemed to have the wildlife teaming. I possibly saw more whitetail deer everyday than my entire time on the Appalachian Trail. I also saw one very large alligator, revealing itself as Godzilla before violently exiting the bank and disappearing into the muddy waters below the Trace, unbeknownst to those traveling above.

I would hike daylight to dawn, with intermittent breaks, setting up camp before sundown, at the most interesting and secluded spot possible. I enjoyed listening to coyotes howling, often accompanied with serenades from Barred Owls performing duets of hoots, cackles and caws. Additionally I heard and witnessed other critters rummaging around outside the safety of my ultra-lightweight one-man tent including deer and wild hogs. There would be the occasional sound of an automobile traveling the Trace, totally unaware of my dozing off to sleep in my humble abode perched on some rise. Thursday afternoon I completed the first 100 miles where I merely exited the Trace, walked a few extra miles in the pouring rain, arriving at the comfort and warmth of my Madison, Mississippi home.

 Caption: Natchez Trace Parkway Motor-road

Caption: Natchez Trace Parkway Motor-road

My earliest memories of the Trace are from my early childhood years when my father would drive us from my hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi out Fisher Ferry Road. Upon arriving my older brother and I would explore and wade through the crystal-clear springs. I’ve driven a Harley the entire length of the Trace and traveled by car countless times. However, there is something a bit more magical about walking, listening, and taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells by foot. I spent a great deal of time reminiscing over a lifetime of fond memories collected along the Trace.

The following Monday I walked a few miles from my home to reconnect with the Trace then continued north past Reservoir Overlook. Three days later, at roughly mile 160, I arrived at the Kosciusko Information Center where I was awarded some good advice on where to grab a good hot meal. The following evening, I would arrive at historic French Camp and enjoy perhaps the best bread pudding known to man at the Council House Cafe before my support team (my amazing wife) arrived to temporarily escort me back to Madison.

 Council House at French Camp, Mississippi

Council House at French Camp, Mississippi

Days later we traveled the Trace up to Nashville and spent two fun days enjoying music and sightseeing. Sunday morning we shared an incredible breakfast at the “World Famous Loveless Café.” Afterwards, I merely had to walk out the restaurant’s back-door, backpack in hand, in order to start walking south towards French camp where I would connect the dots. In the thru-hiking world this is termed a “flip flop.”

I arrived at the Highland Rim trail section later that evening amid bikers, cyclist and convertibles enjoying the sunshiny day. My son Joel joined me a few days later at Meriwether Lewis, the spot where Meriwether Lewis of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition met his untimely death. We made several off-Trace hikes while exploring the area. My lone journey ensued and a few days later I exited the Trace directly behind the friendly Parkway Visitor Center in Tupelo, Mississippi, birthplace of Elvis Presley, to grab a hotel room for the night while enjoying modern comforts and a hot shower.

After twenty-two actual hiking days I once again arrived at French Camp, completing the journey, Teresa arriving on cue to drive me home, but not before another celebratory Council House meal. I would travel to Colorado a few months later to complete the Continental Divide Trail and claim the “Triple Crown of Hiking” joining a few hundred others who have completed the three major trails. Most of whom have more notable hiking resumes conquering trails from around the world. However, having accumulated over 8000 hiking miles, I’m the only “Triple Crowner” who God has blessed with the addition of hiking the oldest, most historic trail in this great country, the Natchez Trace.

The Ice Age National Scenic Trail: A boost of fun at the end of a dreary winter stretch

by Keith Uhlig

My dog, Henry the Adventure Trail Hound, and I have been slogging through a northern winter as best we can.

February was a beast of a month to contend with, dark, cold and for the last couple of weeks, so icy as to make even the most simple walk around the block a risk to limbs and skull. I like to embrace all of Nature’s personalities, but this is my most unfavorite-ist time of the year. Even the snow is gritty and dirty, an affront to winter aesthetics.

I have been diagnosed with a type of low-grade depression, and with the help of a small dose of medication, regular exercise and a lot of fresh air, I generally keep it at bay. But February. Ugh. February is a beast of a bridge to cross sometimes.

However, I’m lucky to live in Wausau, Wisconsin, a medium-sized town in center of the state. It’s not far from the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. This nearly 1,200-mile footpath bisects the state, tracing the edge of the glaciers that last retreated from the area around 15,000 years ago.

 Henry waiting

Henry waiting

When I get antsy or blue or start questioning the purpose of humanity itself, I head out to the Ice Age Trail. One of my favorite sections is called the Plover River Segment which runs about 2.5 miles from State 52 northeast to Langlade County HH.

There are terrific stretches of boardwalk hiking that takes one through a wetland area where you can tell yourself you are in Alaska.

There is a line of rocks paralleling the trail called a boulder train, left by the glaciers as they receded back to Lake Superior. I take comfort from the boulder train. It makes me feel both important and insignificant at the same time.

There also is remnant of the Cold War near the trail, although it has nothing to do with glaciers. It is a radar installation put in place to detect a commie attack from the north. The old base gives me this tingly feeling that part creepiness and part excitement. I tell myself that I should take comfort from the fact that it is now just an empty relic. But I don’t.

 Henry leaping the Plove River

Henry leaping the Plove River

Earlier in the month, I took Henry out to the Plover River Segment thinking I could do some trail running to the radar base and back. It was a fiercely cold day, but I figured I could bull through it.

Henry was with me, and despite the cold, he bounded through the snow with this terrific grin on his face.

Henry doesn’t care about the weather. He is not depressive at all. He jumps for joy at the very thought of going outside, and his happiness is infectious. I couldn’t help but be happy myself.

But it was 10 below zero and happiness doesn’t prevent frostbite. I turned back well short of my goal.  Still, it felt good to be out on the trail and in the woods. But that quick cold trip just left me wanting more.

 Henry goofing off

Henry goofing off

So Henry was with me again a week later when the temperatures were 40 degrees warmer. This time I decided to go south of Highway 52, into a section I never explored before because the boulder train always pulled me north.

It still was tough going for a run. The snow was covered with crust and as I plodded through it crunched under my feet. Henry floated on top, and he ran ahead, stopping every 30 yards to check on me.

The trail here was a lot different that it is just a mile to the north. There it is rocky, hilly with trees thick like a jungle. Here the trail had more gentle slopes, and while wooded, the trees had more space between them. The Plover River burbles alongside the trail here, which was terrific for me.

Henry did not particularly like the stream because this trail segment includes two crossings. I discovered that, although he is an energetic and tough trail dog, he does not enjoy getting wet. He leaped over one stream crossing, and unhappily waded through another. On the way back he balked at getting his feet wet. He paced and cried as I tried to coax him across.

 Henry did not like this crossing

Henry did not like this crossing

There is a kind of stepping stone bridge at that particular place, and I had to cross back, put a leash on Henry, and gently pull him from rock to rock as he crossed. When we got to the other side, he jumped with a sense of victory.

It didn’t take us long to get back to the car. Henry sighed when he got in the back seat, and his head was down and his eyes were closed before I could start the engine.

I sat there for a minute, listening to the dog breathing heavily and my own breath coming to me nice and easy. It was only an hour-long jaunt on the trail, but it was a such a boost of spirit.  Man, it was good.

Keith Uhlig is a reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. He writes regularly about running, biking, the Ice Age Trail and generally goofing off with Henry at https://www.wausaudailyherald.com/blog/wanderingcentralwisconsin/.

A Tragic Winter on the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail

By Frank Norris

Florence, Nebraska, is a leafy suburb on the north side of Omaha. Today, the suburb is quiet and not particularly remarkable, and what passes for history to most passers-by is a series of historic buildings dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The present town site, however, is a personal witness to one of the great tragedies in the decades-long history of America’s western migrations, because it was in present-day Florence where those who led of the Mormon migration suffered – and in many cases died – along the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail during the winter of 1846-1847.

Why Florence? During the 1820s, Joseph Smith witnessed remarkable events while living in a rural area east of Rochester, New York, and in 1830 he founded a church whose adherents were called Latter Day Saints, or Mormons. Popular antipathy against Smith and his followers, however, forced church members to flee the area – first to Kirtland, Ohio, and later in Nauvoo, Illinois, with an outpost at Independence, Missouri. In 1844, however, Smith was killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois (near Nauvoo), and soon afterward, church leaders concluded that the only way to provide the flock safety and breathing room was to relocate them farther west, beyond where most Americans were living at that time. Based on what they learned from explorer John Fremont’s maps and reports, the church’s new leader – Brigham Young – decided to head some 1,300 miles west to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

 The Florence Mill

The Florence Mill

In February 1846, the first elements of the Mormon migration left Nauvoo and headed west across Iowa on what is now known as the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail. The church’s leaders had initially hoped to make it all the way to their destination in one year. But rain, mud, swollen rivers, and poor preparation slowed things down considerably, and by mid-June the decision was made to overwinter along the Missouri River. Three settlements were eventually established there: Kanesville (initially called Miller’s Hollow), which later became Council Bluffs, Iowa; Cutler’s Park, a short-lived settlement founded in August 1846 perhaps 1.5 miles west of present-day Florence; and Winter Quarters, founded in September near the Missouri River’s west bank.

Recognizing that winter would soon be upon them, the emigrants quickly set to work laying out streets – three blocks from east to west and seven blocks from north to south. Within that rectangular grid they constructed some 800 buildings, made from either logs or sod. Some 2,500 Mormons spent the winter here. The industrious assemblage immediately set to work building a nearby mill, and enterprising church members quickly fanned out into adjacent areas and began trading what additional supplies they had for hogs, grain, and vegetables. Despite those efforts, however, most emigrants subsisted on corn bread, “salt bacon” (salt-cured pork) and a little milk, with occasional fresh game or domestic meat.

Even so, the population suffered. The lack of fresh vegetables soon resulted in a prevalence of scurvy, and others got consumption (tuberculosis), malaria, and a host of other diseases. Church documents – not at all complete – show that by the spring of 1847, 359 members had died, or more than one-seventh of those that had arrived at Winter Quarters seven months earlier.

This vanguard of Mormon settlement left Winter Quarters in April 1847, headed west, crossed the Continental Divide, and arrived in Salt Lake Valley in late July along the western end of today’s Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail. Thereafter, Winter Quarters continued to be used by later migrants until the site was abandoned in 1848. Just six years later, the new town of Florence was platted at the site, and by the late 1850s it was community once again. But what still remained of the old Winter Quarters site was quickly subsumed within the town of Florence. Today, all that remains from that era is a cemetery that pays silent witness to the Mormon pioneers who died there, along with the nearby Florence Mill. To tell the story of what took place here during Winter Quarters’ remarkable two-year existence, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints operates a visitor center adjacent to the cemetery.

Frank Norris is a historian for the National Park Service.

Educational Trail Tours on the Nez Perce National Historic Trail

By Karen Heagen

Each summer, the Nez Perce Trail Foundation conducts a guided Summer Educational Trail Tour that follows the route of the 1877 Nez Perce Trail. Building in popularity, the Tour begins at Wallowa, Oregon at the Tamkaliks Pow Wow and concludes at either Big Hole, (Wisdom) Montana (Segment 1) or at the Bear Paw Battlefield near Chinook, Montana (Segment 2). Due to the length and distance of the route, the NPTF Tours are conducted in alternating parts each year.

Participants hike the actual Trail in many areas, and learn about the relevant sites throughout the four states of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. As a brief history--- bands of Nez Perce were peacefully on their way to the reservation and their allotments in June,1877. The conflict became ignited when a small group of resentful warriors committed crimes near Whitebird, Idaho. Nine hundred Nez Perce men, women, children, and elders (with their 2000 horses) decided to flee the area to avoid confrontation and achieve a peaceful life in the Buffalo Plains. Under government and public pressure, they were relentlessly pursued and attacked by the U.S. Army under the command of General Oliver O. Howard, as well as other Indian tribes.

The conclusion of the Nez Perce War finally came after five days of freezing weather, starvation, and casualties. The Nez Perce quit the battle near the Canadian border after traveling nearly 1,200 miles. The extended history of the Trail includes Kansas, Oklahoma (Indian Territory), and Nespelem, WA. These areas identify the eight-year incarceration of the prisoners, and Chief Joseph’s exile from the Wallowa homelands.

 Confluence Circle along the Snake River

Confluence Circle along the Snake River

Each July, the NPTF Summer Educational Trail Tour visits significant sites along the route that include the Wallowa homelands, the Nez Perce National Historic Park at Spalding, Fort Lapwai, Whitebird Battlefield, Clearwater Battlefield, Lolo Pass Trail, Fort Fizzle, Bitterroot Valley, Big Hole Battlefield, Camas Meadows, Yellowstone Park, Canyon Creek, and Bear Paw Battlefield.

This adventure is available to all ages that want to explore and learn about the history of one of America’s most significant (yet relatively unheard of) Native American stories. The Nez Perce tribe has captured the attention of people worldwide-- first from their expert horsemanship involving the Appaloosa horse, and also from their courageous Flight to obtain freedom from the reservation in 1877. The 1800’s public made Chief Joseph (aka the “Red Napoleon”) an underdog hero and figurehead in these efforts. However, his role was primarily a peacemaker and negotiator between the white settlers, the U.S. Army, and his people.

Unknown to many, several bands and their chiefs were involved with the War and the Flight. The NPTF Tour embraces young and old who want to visit the beautiful homelands of Oregon and Idaho, and beyond. It is conducted for those who wish to learn and experience first-hand the epic scale of challenges and trials during the Flight of the Nez Perce. Your experienced guides travel with you to areas that are significant chapters in the history of the Nez Perce War, revealing details and personal experiences of the soldiers and warriors. This Tour will also reveal the timeless beauty and spectacular scenery of the Nez Perce Homelands and its wildlife, landscapes, and culture.

Participants must have reliable transportation for car camping, minimal camping gear, and beginning hiking ability. We encourage groups no larger than 25 people for the maximum quality experience. Please check the website for details. Past participants have included photographers, historians, philosophers, educators, and students. As a two-year participant, Professor Wayne Olts was so inspired that he created photography exhibitions at Folsom Lake College and UCLA featuring his experiences while on the Tours of 2016 and 2017.

 White Bird Trail

White Bird Trail

Many participants may like to combine a family vacation with portions of the Tour. All are welcome and we will help plan your itinerary to fit our schedule. There is also ample opportunity to visit museums and cultural centers along the way, as well as a few favorite fishing holes and hiking trails! Our journey takes us through many beautiful valleys and communities, each with their own flavor and culture. Come join our “Walking Stick” band and discover the ancestral lands of the Nez Perce. Share and review our experiences around the nightly campfire and Talking Circle. Our goal is to get people out on the Trail for the trip of a lifetime!

Karen Heagen is the President of the Nez Perce Trail Foundation.  The NPTF was created in 1991 to Protect, Preserve, and Commemorate the events and history of the epic exodus of the Nez Perce people from their homelands. Other endeavors by the Foundation include special projects, scholarships, and community partnerships. Continuing Education College Credit is available through MSUN. For more information, please visit www.nezpercetrail.net