Saturday, March 12, 2016

Wisconsin Hiking Pioneers:

by Drew Hanson

Ray Zillmer left for posterity Wisconsin’s greatest trail, the organization that promotes and protects it and a backpack of conservation and exploration accomplishments.

Although direct evidence of Zillmer meeting previous Wisconsin Hiking Pioneer Harold Bradley is yet to be discovered, interaction between them seems possible if not likely. Except for Zillmer's one year at Harvard, he and Bradley were both at the University of Wisconsin–Madison 1906–1914 (when enrollment ranged between only 2,700–4,500 students) and were both active in similar outdoor pursuits. After completing his PhD, Zillmer moved to Milwaukee where he practiced law until his death in 1960.

During the 1930s–1940s, Zillmer became an accomplished and respected explorer and mountaineer. In 1934 Zillmer was part of a team of five mountaineers who completed the first ascent of Anchorite Peak, British Columbia, Canada. He would go on to summit many other peaks and describe previously uncharted lands.

In the summer of 1938, he and a companion retraced the steps of Alexander MacKenzie's 1793 expedition between the Fraser and Bella Coola rivers, through part of what is today Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park. He described the adventure in detail in his first of four articles published in the Canadian Alpine Journal.

The American Alpine Journal also published several of his exploration and mountaineering articles, including:

In recognition of his accomplishments, Mount Zillmer, Zillmer Creek and Zillmer Glacier in British Columbia's Cariboo Range were all named in his honor.

Back in his home state of Wisconsin, through his leadership in the Izaak Walton League, Ray Zillmer led the effort to acquire land for the Kettle Moraine State Forest and founded the Ice Age Trail.

Zillmer's insistence that long, narrow corridors of public land serve greater numbers of outdoor recreationists than western national parks and his proposal for a long-distance hiking trail in Wisconsin made an impression on Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson. Armed with this appreciation and later as a U.S. Senator, Nelson introduced legislation to designate the Appalachian Trail America's first national scenic trail and introduced the National Trails System Act of 1968.

For many years Zillmer led weekend hikes in the Kettle Moraine during fall, winter and early spring. The hikes were memorable for the miles covered as well as the lunch which consisted of various cans of soup brought by fellow hikers, all combined into a single pot.

In the 1950s he worked closely with the Wisconsin Conservation Department (precursor to the DNR) to design backcountry huts for hikers in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. He then donated thousands of dollars to their construction.

In 1958 he established the Ice Age National Park Citizens Committee and the Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation, later renamed the Ice Age Trail Alliance. His articles proposing an Ice Age National Park in Wisconsin were published in 1958 by the Milwaukee Public Museum and in 1959 by the Wisconsin Alumnus magazine.

In 1933 the Wisconsin Izaak Walton League named Zillmer "Man of the Year" for his work on the Kettle Moraine State Forest. In 1959 he was presented a plaque by the National Campers and Hikers Association for his efforts to preserve natural areas for public use. A trail system in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest is named the Zillmer Trails and a park in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin is named Ray Zillmer Park, both in his honor. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in 1993. Today the highest award of achievement given by the Ice Age Trail Alliance is the Ray Zillmer Award.

Following his death in December, 1960 the Milwaukee Journal opined, "...the people of Milwaukee and of Wisconsin and the conservation movement nationally are deeply indebted to Mr. Zillmer. His vision, his boundless energy and his dogged determination in behalf of worthy causes to which he was devoted became legend . . . No community and no state ever has enough of men like Raymond T. Zillmer. And the loss of even one, inevitable as it may be, is cause for deep regret."

Find other articles in the Wisconsin Hiking Pioneers series at


Our Greatest Trail, Erik Ness, Wisconsin Trails magazine, April 2002, Vol. 43, No. 2

"Climb Anchorite Peak", The Montreal Gazette, July 23, 1934.

Along Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail, 2008, page 8.

"Scorning A Glacial Gift", The Milwaukee Journal, August 21, 1988.

"Origins of Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail", Sarah Mittlefeldht, Wisconsin Magazine of History: Volume 90, number 3, spring 2007, page 7.

These American Lands, Dyan Zaslowsky and T.H. Watkins, 1994, pages 258-259.

"The Wisconsin Glacier National Forest Park", Lore, Milwaukee Public Museum, vol 8, edition 2, 1958.

"Wisconsin’s Proposed Ice Age National Park", Wisconsin Alumnus, March, 1959

American Alpine Club,

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