Sunday, February 28, 2016

Wisconsin Hiking Pioneers:

Frontier Wisconsin gave young John Muir a
passion for the natural world. He wrote about the experience in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, "Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us. Here without knowing it we were still at school; every wild lesson a love lesson, not whipped but charmed into us. Oh, that glorious Wisconsin wilderness!"

Beginning in 1849, his family owned two successive farms at Fountain Lake (today called Ennis Lake) in central Wisconsin’s Marquette County. They sometimes picnicked at nearby Observatory Hill which offered panoramic and inspiring views of the region.

Muir went on to study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison 1860-1863. During breaks from college he would hike the 50 miles to his parents’ home. Part of the route is now part of the Ice Age Trail. He did not graduate and later wrote of his farewell, "From the top of a hill on the North side of Lake Mendota I gained a last wistful, lingering view of the beautiful university... There with streaming eyes I bade my blessed Alma Mater farewell. But I was only leaving one university for another, the University of Wisconsin for the University of the Wilderness."

In 1864, Muir hiked along the Niagara Escarpment in Canada, including some of the route of today's Bruce Trail. Three years later he visited the naturalist and explorer John Wesley Powell. The meeting might have provided inspiration. Muir undertook a thousand-mile trek from Indiana to Florida which he recounted in his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. The two met a number of times over the years and Powell had great respect for Muir’s work. Muir eventually made his way to California.

Among his most impressive Golden State pursuits became exploring the Yosemite region on foot. Applying the glacial geology he learned in Wisconsin, Muir challenged the opinion of the California State Geologist by insisting that glaciers were responsible for carving Yosemite Valley. Muir’s opinion eventually became accepted as correct.

Muir is considered a founding father of the modern conservation movement. In 1892 he founded the Sierra Club and became its first president. In 1901 he led the first annual trip to Yosemite in which 100 Sierra Club members traveled for a month. He was the driving force behind the creation of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks and had a role in the creation of Mount Rainier and Grand Canyon national parks. It was after meetings with Muir at Yosemite that President Theodore Roosevelt embarked on the establishment of 148-million acres of national forest, five national parks and 23 national monuments.

Muir’s epic conservation accomplishments can all be traced back to Wisconsin where a meadow on his family’s farm was the first piece of land he tried to preserve. In an 1896 Sierra Club speech, Muir recounted, "The preservation of specimen sections of natural flora—bits of pure wilderness—was a fond favorite notion of mine long before I heard of National parks...On the north side of [Ennis] lake, just below our house, there was a Carex meadow full of charming flowers—cypripediums, pogonias, calopogons, asters, goldenrods, etc.—and around the margin of the meadow many nooks rich in flowering ferns and heathworts. And when I was about to wander away on my long rambles I was sorry to leave that precious meadow unprotected; therefore I said to my brother-in-law, who then owned it, 'Sell me the forty acres of lake meadow, and keep it fenced and never allow cattle or
hogs to break into it, and I will gladly pay you whatever you say. I want to keep it untrampled for the sake of the ferns and flowers; and even if I should never see it again, the beauty of its lilies and orchids is so pressed into my mind that I shall always enjoy looking back at them in imagination, even across seas and continents, and perhaps after I am dead.'" The meadow was eventually protected at today’s John Muir Memorial Park, which is embraced by a segment of the Ice Age Trail.

Late in life Muir received honorary degrees from the universities of Wisconsin, California, Harvard and Yale. He would influence people in his lifetime and beyond, including the child of a friend, the next Wisconsin Hiking Pioneer. Find other articles in the series at


Geotechnics and regionalism: the lineage of thought from John Wesley Powell to Benton MacKaye, by Nikkilee Cataldo, University of Southern Maine, May, 2013.

John Muir's Wisconsin Days, Dave Leshuk, Wisconsin Natural Resources. Vol. 12, No. 3, May/June 1988.

Wisconsin Historical Marker #29,


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