At 87, no reason not to hike the 320-mile Rock River Trail

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JANESVILLE — The pace has slowed somewhat but not the drive for Lyle Lidholm.

When he hiked a more than 800-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail in 2000, he averaged about 16 miles a day until a broken foot in Virginia cut short his attempt at the entire 2,200-mile route.

His tempo slowed a little more 10 years later when he traversed the 1,200-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail in the winter. Lidholm tried to do 10 to 12 miles per day but heavy snows that season had him wearing snowshoes for part of the hike, which cut his miles per day nearly in half at times.

At 87 years old, it would be easy for the Watertown man to only reflect.

Lyle Lidholm

Lyle Lidholm, 87, walks last week along a portion of the Ice Age Trail in Janesville that also follows part of the 320-mile Rock River Trail. He got his hat over 40 years ago while helping Amish farmers in Minnesota with a building project. 

Instead, Lidholm’s L.L. Bean Cresta hiking boots are once again getting a workout as he finds himself back on the trail. Lidholm is attempting to become the first person to trek the entirety of the 320-mile Rock River Trail from its headwaters at Horicon Marsh to its confluence with the Mississippi River near Moline, Illinois.

Lidholm last week was about 150 miles into his hike and heading south for the state line. As he approached Ruger Avenue on Janesville’s east side, a beating sun and unseasonable 81-degree temperature had done him in after about five hours, in which he covered about five miles, most of it on a bike path that followed the Ice Age Trail.

“It’s really muggy but I’m having fun,” said Lidholm, who wore an Amish hat but earlier had drank the last of his water. “This isn’t a hike. It’s more like a stroll.”

Lyle Lidholm

With no set trail mapped for those hiking the Rock River Trail, it is up to each hiker to determine their route along the 320-mile river. Last week, Lidholm crossed Highway 26 via a pedestrian bridge on Janesville's north side.

Lidholm served as a tank gunner in Korea, is a retired chef, builder and craftsman, and was instrumental in dismantling historic structures around Wisconsin in the 1970s for placement at Old World Wisconsin. In 2013, he helped with the deconstruction of a log cabin in Watertown and its move to and reconstruction in nearby Lebanon.

Age is only a number for Lidholm and his hike through southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois is solid proof.

Watertown Log Cabin

Historic preservationist Lyle Lidholm makes his way past a pre-Civil War-era log cabin revealed in Watertown in 2013. Lidholm helped take the cabin apart and move it to Lebanon, where he helped reconstruct the structure. Lidholm is carrying a broad axe, a tool likely used to build the cabin.

He began his trek Sept. 1 in Theresa on the east side of Horicon Marsh and is hoping to finish his hike by November. Lidholm’s mission is to not only explore the scenic surroundings of the Rock but to promote the trail that is attracting hikers, bicyclists, paddlers and motorists. Communities along the river are finding ways to increase access to the river while others are helping it become more of a fishery for walleye, smallmouth bass and even muskie thanks to restocking efforts up and down the meandering waterway. In addition, an estimated 85,000 oak trees have been planted by the Rock River Trail Initiative along the river and its watershed over the last eight years.

“When I read about this several years ago, I thought, ‘Wow, a trail, all the way to my hometown, Moline,’” Lidholm said. “I’m not getting any younger so I figured September and October would be nice. I’m kind of calling it my going-home hike.”

Lyle Lidholm

Lidholm holds his trekking poles and his Amish work hat just before starting his hike on the Rock River Trail early last week on Janesville's north side. Lidholm is scheduled to enter Illinois this week as he makes his way to Moline, where the Rock River meets the Mississippi River.

The trail was established in 2010 thanks to the leadership of Frank Schier, editor and publisher of the Rock River Times in Rockford, Illinois, and Greg Farnham, of Hustisford, who has a background in marketing, biology and lake management. Schier, who died in 2017, used his publication to promote the river and his plans for the trail, and along with Farnham rallied others to help convince communities and convention and visitors bureaus along the river to take part.

In 2013, the trail, created largely with private donations and grants, became part of the National Park Service’s National Water Trails System, a program established to protect and restore America’s rivers and conserve natural areas along the waterways. The NWTS includes 20 river systems including the Missouri, Mississippi, the Huron River Trail in Michigan, the Bayou Teche in Louisiana and the Okefenokee Wilderness Canoe Trail in Georgia.

Lyle Lidholm

Lidholm crosses the Rock River on Janesville's south side last week.

In 2017, the Rock Rock River Trail took another big step as portages around the Rock’s many dams were completed and a visitor center was created in South Beloit, Illinois.

Therese Oldenburg, coordinator of the trail, who runs the Nature at the Confluence, an environmental center that hosts the trail’s visitor center, said her organization has also created trails within the trail. They highlight destinations like breweries, wineries, chocolate shops and art galleries. One trail caters to those who enjoy bird watching.

Lyle Lidholm

Window stickers representing the Appalachian and Ice Age trails share space on the rear window of Lidholm's sport utility vehicle.

“There’s still a lot of people discovering what it’s all about,” Oldenburg said. “It’s really about people discovering these amazing towns and communities along the river as they’re experiencing the river.”

Ten people have paddled the entire trail, which can be done at a leisurely pace in about two weeks, Oldenburg said. However, earlier this year, Chris Luedke, of Oconomowoc, paddled the trail for speed, finishing in four days and 12 hours. Several people have driven the route or pedaled a bike, but Lidholm wants to be the first to walk the trail, which winds through 11 counties in Wisconsin and Illinois. But unlike mapped routes for motorists and bicyclists, there is no set route for hikers. That means hikers like Lidholm need to create their own routes, which will likely add up to more than the 320-mile length of the river.

Lyle Lidholm

A series of directional signs in Janesville greet Lidholm last week.

“There’s no one continuous off-road hiking route and that makes it even more difficult than the trails he did before,” Oldenburg said. “We haven’t had anybody walk the whole trail at any age so to have an 87-year-old man say, ‘This is what I’m going to,’ is pretty amazing.”

Lidholm, who wears a brace on his right knee and uses walking poles, doesn’t have a smartphone with built-in GPS. Instead he uses paper maps, keeps a constant eye out for road signs and tracks his journey with a yellow highlighter in a gazetteer. It shows that on Sept. 1, the first day of his hike, he did 6.6 miles to Mayville. The following day was 8.6 miles to Horicon. Other legs, which can be meandering routes using county and town roads, include 5.3 miles out of Ixonia on Sept. 10 and 7.6 miles on Sept. 18 from Fort Atkinson to County Line Road. The next day he put in 6.2 miles to Milton.

Lyle Lidholm

Lidholm doesn't carry a smartphone with GPS. Instead he uses old-school maps to find his way on the Rock River Trail. An experienced hiker, Lidholm trekked the 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail, 800 miles of the Appalachian Trail and several trails in Europe.

He also carries in his left pocket for luck, change he finds on the roadside. As of early last week he was at 11 cents until he found another penny along Highway Y on Janesville’s north side.

Lidholm has been doing day trips from his home in Watertown to hike small sections of the trail, returning home each night. But as Lidholm, whose ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, gets farther from his home as he enters Illinois, Oldenburg is trying to find trail angels to help with Lidholm’s trip by providing rides to starting points. Lidholm plans to sleep in his SUV but drops his vehicle at his designated end point each day.

Lyle Lidholm

Lidholm organizes his day pack just before starting a day of hiking on the Rock River Trail on Janesville's north side. His pack included sardines, gingersnaps and Swedish rye bread, a bottle of water and compact discs of Prussian and Austrian marches and Scottish drum music.

Last week, his Sierra Club backpack was filled with sardines, gingersnaps and Swedish rye bread, a small camera, rain poncho and a portable compact disc player with a set of headphones. His music choices included a CD with Prussian and Austrian marches and another filled with Scottish drums.

“They have a beat and they’re uplifting,” Lidholm said of his unconventional music choices. “I try to get on the trail every day and make some mileage.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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