Sore feet, a spooky tunnel and kind-hearted strangers.
Kehly Johnson has seen it all.
The 2005 Waupaca High School graduate spent three months of 2013 walking all 1,200 miles of Wisconsin’s stretch of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, which stretches from Potawatomi State Park in Door County to Interstate Park on the Wisconsin/Minnesota border and passes through Waupaca, Portage and Waushara counties.
The walk – Johnson’s first major hike – gave her the opportunity to raise nearly $4,000 for Homes For Our Troops, a nonprofit organization that builds specially adapted homes to help severely injured veterans live independent lives.
She discussed the trip Jan. 16 in New London as part of Mosquito Hill Nature Center’s monthly lecture series.
Johnson raised money for the hike by selling homemade paracord bracelets and key chains at King Day at the Wisconsin Veterans Home in King, Strawberry Fest in Waupaca and Art on the Track in Iola. She also sent out sponsor letters and received several items, including a cooking set, chair, no-water shampoo and conditioner, food and cash.
“I wouldn’t say I ever regretted doing it, I guess,” she said. “Maybe I regretted not hiking more prior and preparing a little bit more, but raising all the money and organizing the charity stuff took up most of my time. I’m not sure where I would have fit in a lot of long hikes that would have actually made me prepared. I just went out there.”
She also heard from The Nimblewill Nomad, a well-known backpacker with several long trips under his belt.
“I sent e-mails out to pretty much anyone who’s hiked it and got a lot of great advice,” Johnson said. “It’s a really close community and they’re all willing to help each other. One of them was The Nimblewill Nomad. Halfway through my trip, he actually sent me all his ultralight backpacking gear. I couldn’t afford $1,000 in new gear and in his opinion, mine was too heavy and it was killing my feet.”
Speaking of Johnson’s feet, they became an issue shortly after the hike began.
“By Day 3, I had pretty horrible blisters,” she said. “By the time I was at probably the 600-mile mark, my feet started to feel a lot better. They kind of healed and toughened up. By the time my sister Devin joined me in Antigo, my feet were pretty good. It was more tolerable than at the beginning.”
Johnson put the hike on hold to recover three times, but eventually returned. She spent 71 days on the trail from July 28 to Oct. 27.
After leaving Potawatomi State Park, she headed south and eventually ended up in the Point Beach State Forest, just north of Two Rivers. From there, she headed south through the northern and Southern units of the Kettle Moraine State Forest and eventually reached Janesville, where the trail began heading north.
One highlight of the hike came on the Badger State Trail, an abandoned railroad grade that runs from Fitchburg, a suburb of Madison, to the Wisconsin/Illinois state line.
A portion of the trail takes bikers and hikers through the 1,200-foot long Stewart Railroad Tunnel south of Madison. Johnson was reluctant to enter the pitch-black tunnel, but ran through it using a flashlight and the light from her cellphone.
“I ran and anybody who knows me knows that I’m not a runner,” Johnson said. “It was pretty scary.”
After hiking up and down the 300-foot-high cliffs in Devil’s Lake State Park near Baraboo, Johnson eventually reached the portion of the trail that runs through western Waupaca County, including Hartman Creek State Park and the Waupaca River Fishery Area. Her 7-year-old sister, Nevaeh, joined her for a 4-mile stretch of trail and they spent a night in a small, rustic cabin along the trail a few miles west of Waupaca off of North Foley Road.
Now at the halfway point of her hike, Johnson met up with her other sister, Devin, near Antigo for the final 400 miles. The sisters continued north through the Harrison Hills area of Lincoln County and at one point became lost before eventually finding the trail again.
They headed west and eventually made it to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest north of Medford. They stopped at a federal campground to stay overnight and replentish their water supply, but the campground was closed because of the government shutdown.
“I couldn’t wait to get up there,” Johnson said of the trail section that traveled through northern Wisconsin.
“That was the part of the trail that I was looking forward to me,” she said. “By that point, I had Devin with me. We were in the national forest for days at a time and we only saw a handful of people. We could camp anywhere we wanted, so there was no worry like, ‘Oh, where are we going to stay tonight? Is there any place legal for us to camp?’ That was really nice to get to that point.”
The Johnsons continued through Chippewa, Barron and Polk counties and eventually reached Interstate Park, where U.S. Highway 8 enters Minnesota near St. Croix Falls.
“Bittersweet,” Johnson said about the end of the hike. “Part of me was just ready to be done. I was tired, it was cold, we’d been snowed on and my sleeping bag is rated for 55 degrees. I didn’t mind the snow, but it was the wet feet that was the worst part. There were times when we didn’t dry out for days. Even if you got your stuff dry, the next day, you were soaked again.”
A handful of other people joined the Johnson sisters for the final mile, including Johnson’s boyfriend, Brent Peterson. He also met up with Johnson at several points along the way and joined her on the trail.
“All day long, we had people join us,” he said. “My boyfriend came and hiked the last mile, which was fitting because he hiked the first mile and several miles in-between. My grandma, my sister and my dad were there with signs. It felt good to be done, but it was also sad.”
Johnson was able to raise $3,845 for Homes For Our Troops, while her goal was $3,000. Homes For Our Troops has built 158 homes across the country, including three in southern Wisconsin.
Johnson is still accepting donations and a link to a donation page can be found on her blog, www.kehlymae.wordpress.com.
“I pretty much told whoever I met along the way what I was doing and that was actually how I got a lot of donations,” she said. “I had a gentleman pull along the side of the road, ask me what I was hiking for and hand me a $100 bill. Complete strangers were willing to trust me and donate to my cause. I kept up my blog and was in several newspapers along the way. I spread the word as much as I could.”
Johnson said she met many people – good and not-so-good – along the way.
“A lot of really amazing people who had never met me let me into their home, fed me and let me stay for two to four days,” she said. “Then there were other people who looked at me like I was homeless and locked their cars when I walked by. I ran into a group of hunters in a bar and they were looking at me as if I would never make it. I said, ‘Well, I’ve hiked 900 miles so far, so I must be doing something right.’
“I started off a little afraid,” she said. “I’m a 26-year-old female hiking in the woods by myself. At night, I would have my big knife and pepper spray right next to my head. By the end, I would forget them and leave them in my bag. I felt pretty safe out there.”
Johnson spent six years in the Wisconsin Army National Guard after high school and was deployed in Iraq in 2009-10.
“I think my stubbornness helped me, which is also what helped me in the military,” she said. “First and foremost, I was not going to fail. Regardless of blisters and bad weather, failing was not an option for me. It’s just not in my nature.”
She quit her part-time job with PerMar Security Services before the hike, but the company contacted her during the trip to offer her a full-time position, which she accepted.
“I was really lucky that they really wanted me back and they started calling me a month before I was done,” she said. “I didn’t really have a plan.”
Johnson’s trip took her to dozens of communities along or near the trail. Several of them, including Slinger, Lodi, Milton and Delafield, have memorials to veterans that she visited.
“It was a really great reminder of why I was hiking,” she said.
It didn’t take Johnson long to recover from the three-month-long ordeal.
“I chilled out and laid around for about a week and then I went back to work,” she said. “I didn’t have that much time. It’s the big sense of loss when you’re done. Other hikers that I talked so said the same thing. You can leave the trail, but the trail doesn’t really leave you. It kind of follows you.
“I spent about a month or two just wishing I was out there,” she added. “I still wish I was out there. It’s probably the greatest adventure of my life.”