Local mountain biker and Ice Age Trail volunteer Chris Schotz spent most of his summer riding an excavator through the Merrill Memorial Forest. In all, he blazed about seven miles of new hiking and biking trail that connects the Merrill Memorial Forest to the Underdown Recreation Area north of Merrill.
A new 5.1-mile loop of hiking and biking trail feature views of the Prairie Dells gorge from the west side, an area previously very difficult to reach. The 2.5-mile marsh loop offers great views of the Manthei Marsh.
A new Ice Age Trail map was recently printed with information on 42 different features of the area. The new maps will be available at the trail grand opening on Oct. 1.
“It puts the whole Ice Age Trail together and tells you what you’re seeing out there,” Schotz said.
The new trails connect to the Ice Age Trail in the Underdown.
“I’ve been thinking about it for over 10 years,” Schotz said.
Schotz’s plan was met with enthusiastic cooperation from the Merrill Park and Recreation Department, which oversees the Merrill Memorial Forest. The city applied for a grant, which covered the cost of the project. Schotz and a group of friends put in the volunteer hours necessary to get it done. Schotz, who has the summers off from his teaching job, cleared trail for at least 40 hours a week over the course of more than two months.
“I was doing it as a volunteer,” he said. “I dedicated my whole summer to it. I figured I could give up a summer to have this amazing chunk of trail.”
Schotz previously hand-built the mountain bike trails in the Underdown, which are pretty challenging and used by expert bikers for endurance mountain bike races. In contrast, the new machine-built trails in the Merrill Memorial Forest are much more inviting to novice and intermediate mountain bikers.
“These are good everybody mountain bike trails,” he said. “It’s still a mountain bike trail, but the grades are not steep and we removed a lot of rock.”
The new trail will be officially unveiled during the Ice Age Trail Fall Color Hike on Saturday, Oct. 1. On Oct. 8, the Wisconsin Endurance Mountain Bike Challenge will use the new trail.
“The connector trail turned out amazing,” Schotz said. “The final hill I think is the best downhill in Wisconsin.”
The trail brings a new form of recreation to the Merrill Memorial Forest, which will remain open to hunters.
“It still will be a great hunting area,” Schotz said. “We’re not going to shut out hunters.”
Merrill Parks and Recreation Director Dan Wendorf said he was happy to work with Schotz on the project.
“We’re fortunate to have a guy like Chris, with his experience and enthusiasm, in our community,” Wendorf said.
Wendorf added that he expects the new trail will draw new users to the city forest.
“This is a tremendous asset not only to the property, but to our community and our region,” he said. “It gives us much more diversity in the recreational opportunities that we’re able to offer and gives visitors another reason to come and visit our community.”
The new trail also provides access to some unique natural features of the property, such as the Prairie Dells gorge, that few people have seen before. Wendorf said the trail is the biggest development in the 960-acre city forest for over 25 years.
Schotz and his family have a long history with the Underdown and Ice Age Trail. Chris’ father, Herb Schotz, was one of the original vice presidents of the Ice Age Trail Foundation. Chris himself was Northwoods Ice Age Trail chapter coordinator, helping to get the Underdown and Ripley Creek sections of the trail rebuilt. He has also been organizing the Thunderdown mountain bike race in the Underdown for 16 years.
Schotz is part of an effort to promote northcentral Wisconsin as a mountain biking destination. The newly-expanded Merrill area trail would be among six trail systems, totaling 85 miles, located between Wausau and the WinMan trail north of Manitowish Waters.
“You have six areas in a row,” Schotz said. “Together, that’s a destination people are going to come to. It’s just an ongoing chain of trails.”
The grand opening of the new trail will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 1, with a guided hike. Bring a snack and water for the trail. The hike is open to the public at no cost. A free will donation for the local Ice Age Trail chapter is welcome. For more information contact Chris Schotz at 715-351-0107 or Ruby Jaecks at 715-551-1118.
From Hwy. 17 go to Heineman Road just south of Bloomville and continue approximately 2.5 miles west to the Merrill Memorial Forest.
From Merrill take County K for 6 miles north to Country Road R which winds east to the trailhead. Follow the Ice Age Trail event signs.