In Focus: Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail

The Plan

iat_wiDo you enjoy a good story? Then come visit the Ice Age National Scenic Trail (IAT), a linear park winding 1,000 miles over glacial features in Wisconsin. The unique story of the most recent continental glaciers in North America – about 15,000 years ago – is now being told through the efforts of both private and public resources…and thousands of volunteers. The IAT extends from Potawatomi State Park on the Door Peninsula, through Kettle Moraine State Forest, and then meanders across the Wisconsin River valley, terminating in Interstate State Park on the St. Croix River.

Originally the idea of Ray Zillmer, a Milwaukee lawyer and avid hiker, the IAT has evolved from Zillmer”s founding in 1958 of the Ice Age Park & Trail Foundation to its present status as a National Scenic Trail, established in 1980 by Act of Congress.

Zillmer’s fondness for the glacial landscape of southeastern Wisconsin impassioned him to convince the National Park Service to establish a long narrow strip for outdoor recreation that would be used “by millions more people than use the more remote national parks.” Its linear nature connects the trail to cities, towns, and neighborhoods much as a highway links the nation’s commercial landscape.  Unlike a more famous trail, the Appalachian Trail, the IAT intersects communities and is totally contained in one state. In fact, more than 20 million people live within 100 miles of a trail segment.


Zillmer knew that building the trail would pose many challenges. Funding, a continuing issue, and the trail’s serpent-like nature would be major hurdles, especially with regard to land acquisition. The trail winds through both private and public lands. To be continuous, parcels need to be spliced together. To date, about 600 miles have been completed mostly due to the trail foundation’s dedicated volunteers (pictured above).

These generous folks construct new trail segments, maintain older segments, and raise funds to buy new parcels. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, land for the IAT cannot be purchased by the National Park Service. This frustrates Drew Hanson, trailway director. He notes that this is an enormous conservation, recreation, and education project. But Drew beams when a new segment is completed. And, he has never-ending praise for the many volunteers who are helping fulfill Zillmer’s dream.

If you choose to hike the trail, a cross-section of the Midwest will be painted before you. Glacial topography, such as moraines and eskers, is abundant as are prairies and marsh land. Plus the trails skirt more than 200 named lakes and many other small lakes and ponds. The IAT is primarily a foot path, though several segments are on rail-trails that allow biking and in-line skating. In winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing enthusiasts can enjoy the varied landscape. An extra bonus is wildlife – deer, turkey, bald eagles, red-headed woodpeckers, and the occasional gray wolf or great gray owl. Camping, both campsite and primitive, is permitted in some areas though there are restrictions. More information can be obtained by calling the trail foundation office at 800.227.0046.

The Action

Mapping Specialists got involved with the IAPTF when Drew called to inquire about producing an atlas of the trail. MSL had previously produced a series of large exhibit maps of the trail for the local office of the National Park Service that are displayed at various trailheads throughout the state. Drew had provided the GIS data of the trail for those products. This atlas in turn was envisioned to be used in conjunction with the Ice Age Trail Companion Guide, a detailed handbook that describes the entire thousand-mile trail.

“A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the community; and the community includes the soil, water, fauna and flora, as well as the people.”

– Aldo Leopold,
A Sand County Almanac, 1949

Because of the evolving nature of the trail itself (the location has changed as various parcels have been acquired), the initial design decisions focused on what portion of the trail to portray – completed segments and/or the full-proposed route. We finally decided to layout and number the atlas pages to cover the entire trail, but only produce for the atlas those pages that actually contain completed segments of the IAT. This proved to be a fortuitous decision, because in the course of the production, another trail segment was completed near the Wisconsin River, and we were able to efficiently add that page to the atlas in its proper sequence.

We chose a scale of 1:48,000 as large enough to provide hikers with enough detail about the land, but still small enough to cover the entire trail in 111 letter-size pages, so that the atlas would not become too unwieldy to use outdoors. In the end, 72 pages were actually produced that cover every segment completed to date.

Since the story of the Ice Age is written in the topography, priority was given to adding shaded relief to these color maps. We felt that this 3-D look gave a more immediate impression of the topography, and a less cluttered appearance than using contour lines, as had been done in a previous map series. Drew provided digital elevation models (DEMs) of Wisconsin to build the relief. Considering that the state’s elevation ranges only 1,372 feet – Lake Michigan at 579 feet to Timms Hill at 1,951 feet – the relief was given enough exaggeration to portray typical glacial forms such as eskers, kettles, and drumlins clearly.

A clean design was developed to emphasize the trail and points of interest along it, including historic and recreation sites, parking, camping, toilets and showers – all features that would be important to users. And because the route traverses through a variety of properties – private landowners who have allowed access, state and national forests, shared trails – the maps needed to show these distinctions with unique color fills.


Indeed, it was with the hiker in mind that guided our decisions about what to show. For example, while showing the public road network, only those roads that intersected or offered access to the trail were named, as well as those roads that served as “connectors” between completed sections of the trail. Copier tests were conducted to see how these maps would reproduce in black and white, with the thought in mind that users might want to copy pages for trail use.

This atlas project was truly in keeping with the spirit of the foundation itself. As each atlas page was completed, color proofs were sent out to the appropriate local volunteer chapter (24 in all) that maintains a specific portion of the trail. Hence, the maps were reviewed by those most familiar with the trail itself, the volunteers. With such enthusiasm within the foundation, one can envision the trail evolving toward completion, and the mapping of it keeping pace. To purchase a copy of the atlas, see

Profile: Seniors Keep MSL on Track

A client calls MSL with an urgent message – to make an important change on a map, for example, or update a critical deadline. The project manager responsible for the job, however, is out of the office. So who takes the call? Chances are it’s one of MSL’s nine senior cartographers, our corps of highly-trained staff members with the experience to handle the task and keep the work flowing without delay.

Senior cartographers (or seniors, as we call them) are integral to the day-to-day operation of MSL. Among their most important tasks is to assist project managers with daily work coordination among team members. For example, each manager checks with the seniors every morning to schedule editorial and printing support during the daily manager’s meeting. In fact, a senior will even attend the meeting in the manager’s absence, an essential backup when the manager is away for conferences, trade shows, or vacations. For these events each manager also designates a senior cartographer for direct client contact.


MSL’s Senior Cartographers: (back) Mike Woodard, Jason Laux, Terry Bush, Paul LoBue; (front) Mary Swab, Ann Kennedy, Matt Harr.

But seniors are most important for the work their managers rarely see directly. Because seniors have developed extensive cartographic expertise, they often handle the lead production for specialized projects, and oversee staff cartographers assigned to the project. Senior Cartographer Mike Woodard, for example, works directly with a client’s source acquisition department to keep compilation projects on schedule, and tracks staff progress on the multiple projects underway at any point for Project Manager Jeff King, who oversees that account. And Senior Cartographer Mary Swab exchanges daily e-mails and phone calls with textbook publishers updating progress on thematic maps MSL produces for them, for Project Manager Don Larson.

MSL's Senior Cartographers: (back) William Kyngesburye; (front) Paul Crowder.

MSL’s Senior Cartographers: (back) William Kyngesburye; (front) Paul Crowder.

At MSL, continual training is critical to maintaining a high level of service for our clients. Here, too, the seniors are invaluable. Though project managers conduct initial training for new staff members, the seniors are responsible for their continual training, often in specific areas such as research, compilation, design, digitizing, or data conversion. Because mapmaking is now electronic, the seniors must not only keep up with changing technology themselves, but also effectively communicate their knowledge of new software and changing production processes to their teammates. It’s a common sight to see staff gathered in a cubicle, watching over the shoulders of a senior cartographer as he or she explains the latest version of a software product, or a revised product specification.

MSL’s corporate philosophy is to promote from within. The seniors are the pool of talent from which the next project manager will most likely be selected. Two years ago, for example, MSL selected Senior Cartographer Joe Benash as the project manager to coordinate an account that involves digitizing and updating detailed county land records. Joe won the job after an extensive evaluation of not just his cartographic skills, but also his ability to coordinate work, train and manage staff, and relate to clients – skills he gained during several years of street map production and compilation work for MSL. Though not every senior cartographer aspires to join the management staff, those who do have the opportunity to develop these skills.

At MSL we believe in the adage that managers are only as good as the people around them. Our senior cartographers have a wide range of talents and work hard to achieve MSL’s goals. They can step in for their project managers and keep projects on track. So the next time you call and find your project manager’s senior on the line instead, ask him or her who really keeps your project on schedule. The answer you”ll hear will be, “The managers, of course” – but you won’t see the tongue in cheek!


GIS Day at the University of Wisconsin


MSL 2005 Brat Fest

Jeff feeds the hungry crew: (from left) Paul LoBue, the UPS Guy, Don Larson, Steve Davies, Matt Harr, and Jeff Kranz

Jeff feeds the hungry crew: (from left) Paul LoBue, the UPS Guy, Don Larson, Steve Davies, Matt Harr, and Jeff Kranz


The daily card game: (from left) Jason Laux, Adam Derringer, Paul Crowder, Pete Stangel, and William Kyngesburye

The daily card game: (from left) Jason Laux, Adam Derringer, Paul Crowder, Pete Stangel, and William Kyngesburye


Jeff Kranz, CEO (Chief Epicurean Officer)

Jeff Kranz, CEO (Chief Epicurean Officer)


…and he even sprung for Brewer''s tickets!

…and he even sprung for Brewer”s tickets!

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