It had just rained all night when I arrived at Newport State Park one Wednesday morning in June. Everyone was in rain jackets and galoshes. It was still spitting a little when we hopped on the trail. New growth surrounded stubborn evergreens, wet leaves leaving streaks on shoulders as the trail wandered through a carpet of lily-of-the-valley.
The pace of the hike wasn’t like a usual guided nature hike. Not much was pointed out, and the group moved at a pretty good clip.
“We try not to stop a whole lot,” said Beth Bartoli, naturalist at Newport and leader of the hikes. “Every now and again we have to stop at something too captivating or we have to take a picture or that type of thing.”
As we went along the trail, most people cracked jokes about each other or brought up other hikes they’d been on recently. Someone overhears that I’m from Rochester, Minnesota and pipes in that she lives there and do you know so-and-so, why yes I do, what a small world it is. Later she yells for the whole group to come back and observe a pile of dung crawling with maggots and how did no one step on it, it’s huge and magnificent.
The sun came out as Bartoli guided us, the woods opening up into a clearing of juniper bushes. We stopped to say hello to an old gnarled tree that Bartoli said must have survived the days of clear-cutting before rounding the bend for the home stretch.
As we made it back to Lot 1, sweating and huffing gently, cars drying off in the sun, hikers waved goodbye and said see you next week and made their final jabs at each other before driving off in a convoy to their respective Wednesday tasks.
‘Wow, we’re done already?’
It’s been 13 weeks since hikers started coming together every week at Newport State Park to participate in the Newport Challenge Hike Series. In June, they set out to walk every single trail at the wilderness park. Last Wednesday, they completed their mission amid talk of keeping the band together through fall and winter.
I tagged along on a couple of the hikes. On my first we did the Upland Trail in mid-June. I went back again last week to hike Newport Trail to see if I couldn’t gain some hint of the perspective that the more dedicated hikers had gotten.
Bartoli said she started the challenge hike program out of a “slightly selfish” desire to spend more time in the park. Lucky for her, though, that fits right in with her job.
“My job as naturalist here is to interpret our park, show it off to people, what is our natural beauty, what are our strengths, why would you want to come here?” she said. “Unplug. Get out in nature. Soak that all in, and commune with the folks you’re with.”
The program was a hit. Bartoli had people show up for every single hike, sometimes more than half a dozen strong, and the core group that has done the entire challenge came to anticipate seeing each other every week for a little hike in the woods.
The group is looking forward to continuing the challenge beyond what they’ve already done. The goal of hiking all of Newport may have given way to something else, something more lasting.
‘Nature’s little surprises.’
In August, late summer has begun its resolution into fall. I joined the hiking group at the trailhead of the Newport Trail at Lot 2. A few of the regulars were gone this week, but they left a trail map on Bartoli’s desk with the proposed route highlighted, indicating they’d completed the assignment.
The bloom in late summer comes shaded by the woods’ full canopy. A new crop of wildflowers, asters and jewelweed are replacing the lady’s slippers and dwarf lake iris. Ferns are everywhere, and mushrooms and wild edibles will soon have a resurgence as the woods begin to cool down in the presence of persistent rain. Out in the fields, spotted knapweed, cone flowers, Queen Anne’s lace and chicory have all but taken over.
We walked the four-mile trail in around an hour and a half, and we were done before we knew it. Our conversations had made the time fly. A few hikers re-entered to get a few more miles in as the rest of us packed up.
The hope is that if the program continues into fall and even the winter, more people will have the time to join in. There might be a maximum capacity for any one group, but Bartoli is sure there are folks working seasonal day jobs that would love a morning in the park.
“[The park] changes weekly,” she said. “We’ve seen all this transition going on firsthand, because we’re out there every week. And it will continue to surprise us…I’m the luckiest person in the world. Outside there is my office – 2,400 acres of wonderfulness.”
For more on hiking and backpacking Newport State Park, check out this feature by Pulse and Door County Living photographer Len Villano on the art of backpacking with your camera.